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Media Literacy


What Is Media Literacy?

Media literacy is a movement that helps children and adults cope with today's inescapable and often overwhelming media environment. Developed during the 1980s and 1990s in response to public concern about media violence and commercialism, the movement is centered in schools but also encompasses homes, religious and civic organizations and other institutions. Three goals of media literacy, as identified by the Center for Media Literacy in Los Angeles, are:

  • Managing television and the choices involved;
  • Developing critical viewing skills, or understanding media depictions; and
  • Looking behind media depictions at political, economic and social motivations.

Studies suggest that media literacy can produce less vulnerable children and adults. People who understand the motivations and production techniques of media are less likely to adopt destructive attitudes and behaviors that are depicted in the media.

Why Is Media Literacy Important?

Television, video games, popular music and other media are not simply harmless forms of entertainment. The media helps to shape attitudes and behaviors. TV advertisers, for example, are well aware that media shape attitudes about products and services. They pay handsomely for advertising opportunities and skillfully manipulate words and images to draw attention to their products.

They also "place" products within television shows, or pay producers to mention or use their products as part of the entertainment feature. Alarmingly, many advertisements are aimed at children, who are virtually defenseless in the face of techniques such as exaggerated, false comparisons, and misinformation. Collaborations among powerful fast-food chains, movie producers and toy manufacturers have made child-directed messages difficult, if not impossible, to avoid.

Similarly, media help to shape attitudes about behaviors that are acceptable or desirable for young people. Media provide "scripts" for romance, problem-solving, social interactions, and relationships with individuals of other classes, races, and ethnic origins. Such scripts are especially important to teenagers, who may have little real-world experience from which to draw their own conclusions. Thus, teens often adopt the words, mannerisms and clothing styles of their favorite movie characters or actors. Adopted behaviors sometimes extend to risky or unhealthy activities, such as drinking, smoking, and violence. Consider the following:

More than 4,000 studies have demonstrated the relationship of screen violence to aggressive behavior. In 1972, the U.S. Surgeon General declared, "The controversy is over; watching violence makes children more aggressive." (See Comstock, G.A. & Rubinstein, E.A. (Eds.). (1972). Television and social behavior: Vol. 3. Television and adolescent aggressiveness. Washington , D.C. : U.S. Government Printing Office).

Among children and adolescents, cigarette advertising recognition is correlated with frequency of smoking (Goldstein, A.O., Fischer, P.M., Richards, J.W., & Creten, D. (1987). The Journal of Pediatrics , 110(3), 488-491.)

Adolescents' exposure to alcohol ads on television is more strongly related to both beer and liquor drinking than are parental influence, age, sex, church attendance, social status, or viewing alcohol in entertainment programming (Atkin, C., Hocking, J., & Block, M. (1984). Teenage drinking: Does advertising make a difference? Journal of Communication , 34(2), 157-167).
Still, despite such problems with media content, censorship of the media is not a viable solution. Freedom of speech goes hand-in-hand with political freedom. Citizens of free countries need access to all types of information, including information that may be inappropriate for children and teens. Parents can, and should, shelter young children from excessive media use and inappropriate content. Eventually, however, children must learn to navigate the "marketplace of ideas" that media provide. They must learn to analyze and evaluate media messages and to construct media messages of their own. In short, they must become media literate.

How Is Media Literacy Taught?

Media literacy starts with a basic premise about media content and then encourages listeners and viewers to ask key questions about the content they encounter. The basic premise is that media messages are depictions of reality, not reality itself. Media depict some--but not necessarily all--aspects of real people, places, issues, and institutions. Some aspects of reality are likely to be omitted or deemphasized.

The central question that viewers or listeners are encouraged to ask is, "How is the subject (person, place, issue, etc.) depicted?" Other important considerations include:

  1. Do the depictions vary according to medium? That is, does television present a different view than do films, magazines, newspapers, popular music, or other media?
  • What characteristics do the depictions have in common? What do they leave out?
  • How do the media perceive, address and target consumers and audiences for their products?

Media Depictions of Teens: An Example

Adolescents could learn about media literacy by examining media depictions of young people. Thus, a central question for them to answer would be, "How do the media depict young people?" At least two recent studies have examined that question and provided an answer. In the United States , the studies found, teens are frequently depicted as "kids in crisis." They are seen primarily as problems to be solved or at risk for a host of self-destructive behaviors. (See In Between the Lines: How the New York Times Frames Youth (2000) and Off Balance: Youth, Race and Crime in the News (2001)).

The impact of media messages about kids in crisis is summarized in Fateful Choices , a report from the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development published in 1992. "The state of adolescent health in America has reached crisis proportions," the authors wrote. "Large numbers of ten-to-fifteen year olds suffer from depression that may lead to suicide; they jeopardize their future by abusing illegal drugs and alcohol, and by smoking; they engage in premature, unprotected sexual activity; they are victims or perpetrators of violence....By age 15, about a quarter of all young adolescents are engaged in behaviors that are harmful to themselves and others" (p. 21).

Does the description reflect the majority of young people? According to the Carnegie report, only 25% of young people in the United States could accurately be described as "in crisis." Media literacy, then, would raise the following questions about the media's depiction of young people: What about the other 75%? Where are their stories being told? Why are the news and entertainment media focused on young people in trouble? How does the skewed depiction of "kids in crisis" shape teens' perceptions of themselves? How does it shape policies implemented by adults?

In a subsequent report, the Carnegie Council espoused media literacy as an effective tool for helping teens detect and reject the undesirable models of themselves they so often see in the media. Such knowledge "may help counter the development of social or peer norms that reinforce and maintain unhealthy behaviors," the group said (p. 118).

Is Media Literacy Effective?

Research suggests that media literacy can make a difference in the attitudes and behaviors of young people. Media literacy techniques have been used to discourage violence, substance abuse, smoking, appearance- and weight-related anxiety, and other negative outcomes that may be associated with viewing undesirable, on-screen role models. Here are examples of what media literacy can do:

Children's attitudes about media violence changed significantly after only two media literacy sessions, and both teachers and peers reported fewer instances of those children hitting each other (Huesmann, L.R., Eron, L.D., Klein, R., Brice, P., & Fischer, P. (1983). Mitigating the imitation of aggressive behaviors by changing children's attitudes about media violence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology , 44, 899-910).

Third-graders who received media literacy training related to alcohol ads were less likely to rate the ads positively, were less attracted to alcohol promotional material, and showed greater disdain for alcohol commercials ( Austin , E.W., & Johnson, K.K. (1997). Effects of general and alcohol-specific media literacy training on children's decision making about alcohol. Journal of Health Communication 2, 17-42).

Brief presentations in media literacy presented to college-age women produced significant reductions in appearance- and weight-related anxiety, and in idealization of the slenderness embodied by actresses and fashion models (Stormer, S.M., & Thompson, J.K. (1995, November). The effect of media images and sociocultural beauty ideals on college-aged women: A proposed psychoeducational program . Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association for the Advancement of Behavior Therapy, Washington , D.C. ).

Tips for Media-Literate Families

  • Turn off violent programming. Contact local television stations or businesses with your concerns and encourage them to provide more family programming.
  • Set limits on the use of media in your home. Use a family planning calendar when selecting programming, setting limits and scheduling other media activities such as playing video games, listening to music, or using the Internet.
  • Teach media literacy skills at home. Talk with your children about stereotypes and hidden messages in television programs, video and computer games, commercials and music. Take time to talk and listen.
  • Encourage and model desirable behaviors. Use non-violent methods such as talking, listening and time-outs to solve problems.
  • Express your opinion. Talk about media violence with and in front of your children.
  • Use your purchasing power. Avoid buying items whose advertising uses violence, violent language or stereotypes.
  • Make "family night" a weekly event. "Unplug" and disregard all forms of media. Play games, go for walks, or look at old photos. Make memories!
Kellogg Foundation Grant
Annual TV-Turnoff Week
Feedback from Families
Activities for Children
Products to limit TV time

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