Media Literacy: Why Is It Needed More Than Ever?

There is no doubt that people, children especially, learn from all the media that they see. We are surrounded by TV, ads, websites, video games, magazines, news sites, signs, digital billboards, packaging, radio, social media, and all kinds of advertising. The average kindergartener sees about 70 media messages every day. By the time they’re in high school, teens are spending more than one-third of their day using media. Few of us fully understand how the media we interact with affect us and our society. So, how do we sort through the noise? The key is media literacy.

What Is Media Literacy?

Media literacy is a set of skills that helps people not just use but analyze the content of media messages. It is the ability to identify different types of media, understand how they work, know their potential and pitfalls, follow certain do’s and don’ts, and use these media in the right manner.

Children come across different media types, including videos, photos, articles, text messages, memes, games, and advertising. All these come from various sources, such as friends, teachers, advertisers, and strangers. Through phone, television, public display or other means we have to teach them to evaluate each of these media critically.

The Urgent Need For Media Literacy

Every day we spent eight hours exposed to different forms of media. It keeps us entertained, informed, and opinionated. Media influences us through news headlines, and information we see online, on TV, on the radio, it creeps into our daily lives settling subconsciously through magazines and advertisements that create and recreate standards of success, beauty, and living. Through movies, we are exposed to violence, fantasy, and crooked ideas about love. Even the music that enters our ears is part of media’s influence.

Every day our brain processes all these sorts of information from a variety of sources. Sometimes we no longer wonder whether the information we receive is true or not; we believe it right away. If we react to it right away, we no longer are watchful with what enters our minds, we no longer think twice before we respond, we no longer can identify ourselves and what influences us.

Media brings people together. It can make us laugh, think, consider. It can make us feel right, but if we’re not careful, it can also fill our minds with false information and can make us confused and upset. It can affect our thinking, even the things we desire and who we eventually become.

So, how can we guard our minds? How can we train ourselves to evaluate and filter information? We can spare a lot of assumptions by simply verifying information. Being media literate means simply taking a step further, digging a little deeper, considering a little longer, and thinking a little harder about the information we get from media.  

Children may know they can’t believe everything they see and read, but how do they know what to trust? There’s a ton of information we need to sort through these days. Most kids spend more than half their waking hours consuming media – that’s any form of communication that reaches many people at once, websites and magazines, games and TV shows, it’s all part of the media; it also includes any advertisement you see or hear. All this stuff is a constant part of our environment today.

You have to remember that these messages don’t come out of nowhere; they’re each made by someone, and that means they always have a purpose. These goals are often hidden and they may not be in your best interest, so it’s a good idea to be skeptical or doubtful. That doesn’t mean that news and social networks aren’t fun or useful, but you have to understand their goals to judge their credibility. That’s how trustworthy you think a message is.

For example, a rave review of a blockbuster sequel; the people that own the magazine also run the studio that made the movie, they own the fast-food places serving those meal deals, and they even have a gaming company to make eating apps. Connecting those dots makes you realize all media has a particular point of view they speak with, a bias, a slant on how they see the world.

Even serious news outlets have biases. Editors choose which stories to run and how they’re reported. Even if they’re trying their best to avoid bias, personal views will always influence these stories. No one can be completely impartial, but you don’t need special glasses to get to the truth; you just have to ask some questions.

teaching media literacy to young children

The 10 Questions You Should Ask

Every day your students consume hours of media. With students devoting so much time to media, you’re probably wondering how you, as a teacher, can possibly match the media’s influence. Media literacy requires critical thinking, creative possibilities, and technical skills. After students complete their own projects, you’ll want to focus their attention on what they’ve learned. Here are the 10 questions you’ll want your students to begin asking themselves whenever they watch TV or engage with any other form of media:

  1. What’s the message of this piece of media?
  2. Who created this message? The child should understand the who part of the media content. Children should try to find out who the author of every piece of communication they receive is. They should start with if it has been created by a person or by an organization. If it is a person, who are they? An artist, a journalist, somebody else? Is the person trying to be anonymous? If an organization has created the content, are they for profit or not for profit?
  3. Why is this message being sent? Once the who is understood, the child should understand the why part of the content. What is the objective of creating this content? Was it created for entertainment, to sell something or for another reason? Is the creator trying to influence us in some way? What is their ideology? Does their line of thinking align with our family’s values?
  4. What is the target audience? After the who and why of the content, children should understand for whom the content is created, understand the audience the message is targeted at. What age group is this message meant for? Is it targeted at a group of people who share a different ideology than me?
  5. Is it authentic? This is a very important aspect to understand. Did the sender or publisher of the content create it? Do they take responsibility? Another important point to understand is am I seeing the complete content or only a part of it? If this hasn’t come to me directly from the creator of the message, but has been forwarded to me through someone, then the content should be analyzed further to assess the authenticity of the message. The child can take the help of parents, teachers or caretakers to understand this further.
  6. How do I feel? This is a very crucial question. If for any reason the child is not feeling comfortable watching or reading something, they should be advised to stop watching or reading it and report it to one of their teachers, parents or caretakers.
  7. What effect do the content creators hope their message will have?
  8. What creative techniques are used to attract my attention?
  9. How different people understand this message differently from me?
  10. What lifestyles values and points of view are represented in or omitted from this message?

Finding the answers can help decode the media all around us. Digital media are going to influence our children’s generation in a big way. Asking these questions is a good start to access critically, evaluate, and use media which are critical to success in today’s digital world.

Media Literacy Concepts

When talking about media literacy, there are five core concepts to keep in mind:

  1. The first media literacy concept is all media messages are constructed. This means that media decks are built just as surely as buildings and highways are built. The key behind this concept is figuring out who constructed the message, out of what material, and what effect the message carries to the reader.
  2. The second media literacy concept is media messages are constructed using a creative language with its own rules. This means that each form of communication has its own creative language; scary music heightens fear, camera close-up conveys intimacy, big headlines is a signal of significance. Understanding the grammar, syntax, and metaphor of media language help us to be less susceptible to manipulation.
  3. The third media literacy concept is that different people experience the same media message differently. This means that audiences play a role in interpreting media messages. Each audience member brings to a message a unique set of life experiences. Differences in age, gender, education, and cultural upbringing will generate unique interpretations on each individual.
  4. The fourth media literacy concept is that media have embedded values and points of views. This is because they are constructed media messages; they carry a subtext of who and what is important, at least to the person or people creating the message. The choice of the character’s age, gender or race, the selection of a setting, and the actions within the plot are just some of the ways that values become embedded in a television show a movie or an advertisement.
  5. The fifth and last media literacy concept is that most media messages are organized to gain profit and power. This means that most of the world’s media were developed as money-making enterprises. Newspapers and magazines lay out their pages with ads first, the space remaining is devoted to news. Likewise, commercials are part and parcel of most television watching. Now the internet has become an international platform through which groups or individuals can attempt to persuade people into buying or advertising products.

By considering the core concepts behind every medium, we can equip ourselves and our students with the ability to analyze and interpret a message, and to accept or reject its legitimacy.

Teaching Media Literacy

Teachers need to be involved in talking to their students about media, even before you teaching them to read, because they see things before they’re able to read. We need to teach them how to understand those things.

A lot of times parents just put their kids in front of the TV, but they also need to be involved in their understanding of what they’re seeing.

Schools need to reframe and rethink literacy. That’s one of their big missions. Schools may emphasize literacy, but they don’t have a good grasp of what type of literacy needs our students have, and what type of literacy needs we have as a society.

If we want to live in a democracy, if we really want to create democracy where everyone participates and has real access to understanding the messages and what’s going on, media literacy is essential. There’s no way to have true democracy without people being media literate, both in understanding the messages and creating the messages and contributing. One of the cornerstones of media literacy is that it’s essential for democracy. Everybody needs to be media literate. We’re all learning something, because we’ve never had a culture like this before.

We’re all complaining that media is speeded up, that our world is speeded up, that we’re rushed and crushed, and people are working two jobs, and there’s so much to go on. When you have an overwhelming situation in your life, you can do one of three things: you can either fight to change it, you can accept it or you can run away from it. We can’t run away from it, because it’s everywhere; we can accept it and just let it slide over us; but we can be engaged in trying to change it, to try to incorporate it into our lives.

We make so many decisions on the basis of the media that we receive. We find out how to live, we find out what to wear, we find out what to eat, what medicines to consume, we find out virtually all of our information through media. It’s very important to understand why was this message sent to me, and what am I getting out of this message. We know that often messages are sent to sell us something or perhaps a message is sent because someone wants to influence our opinion or get our vote or persuade us of a particular ideology, so we absolutely have to understand why a message was sent and what the motivation behind that message is. Then, we’re in a much stronger position to make wise choices about what we want to do.

media literacy

How To Teach Media Literacy To Children

Teaching your kids to be ad savvy is so important in the digital age. Advertisers are getting sneakier and sneakier about the ways that they try to directly market to children; they’re embedding their advertising in games and videos and other interactive programs that allow kids to interact with a brand without the kid even realizing that it’s an advertisement.

So, it’s absolutely essential that we teach kids to recognize what’s an ad and what’s regular content, and to help kids understand what the brand is trying to do, what it’s trying to sell, and how its trying to market to you without you even knowing. Kids actually don’t like to be tricked and when they find out that advertising is really trying to rope them in without them realizing, it can actually become almost a game for them to help them understand what’s an ad and what’s regular content. 

Ads are often the easiest to read. You already know the intended effect: to make you buy something. However, advertisers use all kinds of subtle tricks to get you to do that. They might obscure who’s behind the product or hide the fact that it’s an ad at all. For instance, product placement puts popular brands inside movies and shows.

Traditional ads have dozens of ways to make the product seem more appealing. First, almost every image is altered or changed. Pimples are erased, waists are slimmed, teeth are whitened, and backgrounds are changed to look more interesting. Media images can make it seem like we all look the same way, but people come in all colors shapes and sizes.

Some ads use scientific claims or statistics. The claims may be true, but there’s often more to the story. Other ads work by connecting products with celebrities or cute mascots. You know that some jeans can’t make you rich and famous, but the connection works on a subconscious level; next time you’re shopping, you’ll be more likely to buy that brand.

If you question what you see, you can break these connections. It’s not just advertising; all media use similar strategies to grab your attention, like the stories in your newsfeed. They use sensationalism, shocking or exaggerated language, to convince you to click. Social media is flooded with sensationalist stories, and everything you read, write, and share is traced. It’s called data tracking and networks use it to send you similar posts.

Following the same kinds of stories all the time can really distort your view of the world. So, it’s smart to get news from a variety of sources. You’ll expose yourself to ideas and topics you might otherwise miss. It can feel overwhelming, but you can’t hide from the media. You just have to learn to read the messages like how we learn to read books. That’s what media literacy is all about.

Strategies To Build Media Literacy Among Young Learners

Is your child believing all the fake news that is received? Are you concerned that your children might be groomed or radicalized online or is your child forwarding messages that could be false or hurt someone? Do you want your child to interpret all the digital media they are exposed to critically, analyze them, absorb the good ones and avoid or ignore the unwanted ones? Overall, do you want your child to be digitally literate and become a digital champion?

We all want our children to be literate. We teach them to recognize alphabets, identify words, understand their meaning, and write articles. We must give media literacy the same importance.

A media literate person is familiar with the basics of various types of media and enjoys making conscious use of them.

Media literacy is our best defense against manipulation. Media literacy is concerned with assisting students in becoming competent and critical in the various media forms, so that they are well equipped to control the interpretation of what they observe and hear, rather than allowing the interpretation to control them.

Teaching media literacy to students will benefit them as they grow. Addressing misinformation and social media is one way to empower young learners to combat fake news.

Here are some strategies for increasing media literacy among young learners:

  1. Teach students how to evaluate media. Students must be taught how to evaluate media. For example, as a teacher you need to discuss bias in sources by showing students that media changes depending on who produced it, who the intended audience is and what biases may be attributed to the source. This helps students to evaluate what they are viewing.
  2. Show students where to find digital resources and databases. Teachers should also provide students with reliable media sources. This means teaching students how to evaluate websites and digital resources for trustworthy content. For instance, there are several databases designed for students.
  3. Examine the truth in advertisements. Have students identify what advertisements are trying to sell and what promises or ideas they are using to convince you to buy the product.
  4. Finally, have students create media. Depending on the grade level, you can have students create media through presentations, videos and websites. For example, students can create movie posters of movie trailers.
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Anita Lindquist is the Head of Curriculum in a Secondary School in Stockholm. She is an advocate for excellence in public education and passionate about learning and teaching methodologies.


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