What Is Media Literacy?

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According to the Center for Media Literacy, a leading advocacy organization, media literacy "provides a framework to access, analyze, evaluate, create, and participate with messages in a variety of forms—from print to video to the internet. Media literacy builds an understanding of the role of media in society as well as essential skills of inquiry and self-expression necessary for citizens of a democracy."

In other words, media literacy is the ability to apply critical thinking skills to the messages, signs, and symbols transmitted through mass media.

We live in a world that is saturated in media of all kinds, from newspapers to radio to television to the internet. Media literacy enables us to understand and evaluate all of the media messages we encounter on a daily basis, empowering us to make better choices about what we choose to read, watch, and listen to. It also helps us become smarter, more discerning members of society.

Media literacy is seen as an essential 21st-century skill by educators and scholars, including media psychologists. In fact, the mission statement of Division 46 of the American Psychological Association, the Society for Media Psychology and Technology, includes support for the development of media literacy.

Despite this, many people still dismiss media as harmless entertainment and claim they aren't influenced by its messages. However, research findings consistently demonstrate that people are impacted by the media messages they consume.

Media literacy interventions and education help children and adults recognize the influence media has and give them the knowledge and tools to mitigate its impact.

History of Media Literacy

The earliest attempts at media literacy education are often traced back to the British Film Institute's push in the late 1920s and early 1930s to teach analytical skills to media users. Around the same time in America, the Wisconsin Association for Better Broadcasters sought to teach citizens to be more critical consumers of media.

However, the goal of these initial media literacy efforts, which continued into the 1960s, was to protect students from media by warning them against its consumption. Despite this perspective, the dominance of media—and television in particular—continued to grow, even as interest in media literacy education waned.

More recently, the advent of the internet and portable technologies that enable us to consume media anywhere and anytime has led to a resurgence in the call for media literacy. Yet the goal is no longer to prevent people from using media, but to help them become more informed, thoughtful media consumers.

Although media literacy education has now become accepted and successful in English-speaking countries including Australia, Canada, and Britain, it has yet to become a standard part of the curriculum in the United States, where a lack of centralization has led to a scattershot approach to teaching practical media literacy skills.

Impact of Media Literacy

Despite America's lack of a standardized media literacy curriculum, study after study has shown the value of teaching people of all ages media literacy skills.

For example, a review of the research on media literacy education and reduction in racial and ethnic stereotypes found that children as young as 12 can be trained to recognize bias in media depictions of race and ethnicity and understand the harm it can cause.

Though the authors note that this topic is still understudied, they observe that the evidence suggests media literacy education can help adolescents become sensitive to prejudice and learn to appreciate diversity.

Meanwhile, multiple studies have shown that media literacy interventions reduce body dissatisfaction that can be the result of the consumption of media messages.

In one investigation, adolescent girls were shown an intervention video by the Dove Self-Esteem Fund before being shown images of ultra-thin models. While a control group reported lower body satisfaction and body esteem after viewing the images of the models, the group that viewed the intervention first didn't experience these negative effects.

Similarly, another study showed college women (who were at high risk for eating disorders) reported less body dissatisfaction, a lower desire to be thin, and reduced internalization of societal beauty standards after participating in a media literacy intervention. The researchers concluded that media literacy training could help prevent eating disorders in high-risk individuals.

Moreover, studies have shown that media literacy education can help people better discern the truth of media claims, enabling them to detect "fake news" and make more informed decisions.

For instance, research into young adults' assessment of the accuracy of claims on controversial public issues was improved if the subjects had been exposed to media literacy education. In addition, another study showed that only people who underwent media literacy training engaged in critical social media posting practices that prevented them from posting false information about the COVID-19 pandemic.

How to Practice Media Literacy

The evidence for the benefits of media literacy suggests it is valuable for people of all ages to learn to be critical media consumers. Media scholar W. James Potter observes that all media messages include four dimensions:

  1. Cognitive: the information that is being conveyed
  2. Emotional: the underlying feelings that are being expressed
  3. Aesthetic: the overall precision and artistry of the message
  4. Moral: the values being conveyed through the message

Media psychologist Karen Dill-Shackleford suggests that we can use these four dimensions as a jumping off point to improve our media literacy skills. For example, let's say while streaming videos online we're exposed to an advertisement for a miracle weight loss drug. In order to better evaluate what the ad is really trying to tell us, we can break it down as follows:

  1. On the cognitive dimension we can assess what information the ad is conveying to us by asking some of the following questions: What does the ad promise the drug will do? Does it seem likely the drug can deliver on those promises? Who would need this kind of drug?
  2. On the emotional dimension, we can evaluate the feelings the creator of the ad wants us to feel: Do they want us to feel insecure about our weight? Do they want us to imagine the positive ways this drug could change our lives? Do they want us to envision the satisfaction we would feel after the drug delivers its quick fix?
  3. On the aesthetic dimension, we can determine how the ad employs messages and images to make us believe the product will deliver on its promises: Does the ad show "before" and "after" images of someone who supposedly took the drug? Does the "before" image look sad and the "after" image happy? Does the ad offer testimonials from people that are identified as experts?
  4. On the moral dimension, we can examine what the ad makers wanted to say: Are they equating thinness with happiness? Are they sending the message that it's a moral failing when someone is overweight? Are they saying that one has to be thin to be loved and respected?

This is one avenue for learning to practice media literacy in everyday life. Remember, the purpose of media literacy isn't to enjoy media less, it's to give people the tools to be active media consumers.

A Word From Verywell

Not only will media literacy enable you to detect, analyze, and evaluate negative or false media messages, it will actually enable you to enjoy media more because it puts control over the media back into your hands. And research shows this is likely to increase your health and happiness.

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10 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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