Media Literacy

Practice Matters, June 2014

A publication of the Act for Youth Center of Excellence

(Note: This page is formatted for screen readers.)


by Andrew Smiler

Andrew Smiler, PhD is the author of Challenging Casanova: Beyond the Stereotype of the Promiscuous Young Male. As a developmental psychologist, Smiler's training and research highlight adolescence and early adulthood. Visit his website at:


American youth grow up with easy and regular access to media. These media are not inert products that may be mostly ignored; much of media content actively seeks to attract our attention and communicate a message. As such, it is important that we help them understand the underlying messages and become wise to the ways that media producers try to influence behavior. In this article, I explore the definition, importance, and benefits of media literacy, and present key questions to guide youth and adults as they engage with media.

What is Media Literacy?

At the most basic and broadest level, media literacy refers to the ability to understand the content of any medium -- print, audio, video, or other -- at both the surface and deeper levels. The surface level refers to the direct or manifest message being transmitted. Deeper levels address a broad variety of other messages that may range from "traditional" storytelling devices such as foreshadowing and allusion to more "modern" questions such as who is telling this story and what (or who) has been left out?

Given its breadth, media literacy may be better understood as a set of skills that can be applied to any medium. The National Association for Media Literacy Education, for example, defines media literacy as "the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, and communicate information in a variety of forms, including print and non-print messages."

Why is Media Literacy Important?

Media is Pervasive

In our increasingly connected world, it is nearly impossible to go a full day without using or experiencing some type of media. Imagine a day without reading (email, blogs, billboards, books, magazines), listening to recorded music (radio, streaming), watching recorded video (TV, DVD, streaming), or playing a video game (handheld, console, internet). Screens are increasingly common in all sorts of restaurants and large retailers. The use of most cell phones requires at least a basic level of media literacy: identifying the correct icon in order to open the desired app or function.

The statistics help fill out the picture.

Information regarding access and ownership is straightforward, but understanding use is more difficult. Part of the challenge is that people often use multiple media at the same time. Many people routinely play music or have the TV turned on as background while performing other activities, such as completing homework, texting, playing a video game, or using a graphic design program. We might then ask to what extent an individual is really "using" that background medium. Among teens, estimates suggest averages of 2-3 hours of television per day, 15-30 minutes of music videos per week, and 5 hours of music per day (Kistler, Rodgers, Power, Austin, & Hill, 2010; Ter Bogt, Engels, Bogers, & Kloosterman, 2010).

Media Influences Behavior

Given media's pervasive presence in the lives of adolescents, some researchers have begun to refer to it as a "super peer" (Brown, Halpern, & L'Engle, 2006). The term can be used to refer to the ability of media to give teens common points of conversation (e.g., favorites) as well as media's ability to set behavioral norms.

The most famous approach to understanding media's effects may be Cultivation Theory, proposed by George Gerbner and his colleagues in the 1970s (Gerbner et al., 2002). Noting that television shows rely on a small number of storylines repeated with infinite variations, the theory argues that repeated and heavy exposure leads people to believe the real world behaves like the world-on-TV. Although today's media are more varied in content and storylines, the basic premise holds, particularly when a single genre is examined.

Other approaches focus on how and why people use particular forms of media. Issues of active vs. passive engagement, identification with particular characters or individuals, perceived realism, viewing motives, and interpretation of media messages have been examined, and each has an effect on adolescent consumers. These factors can impact an individual's understanding and incorporation of media and thus may impact a teen's beliefs, behaviors, or identity (Ward, 2003).

Example: Cumulative Effects

One research team found that teens who preferred violent content across four or more different media (TV, movies, music, magazines, internet) were substantially more likely to perpetrate or be the victim of dating violence one to two years later; odds were much lower among those who preferred violence in three or fewer formats (Friedlander et al., 2013).

What Can Media Literacy Achieve?

Media literacy programs usually attempt to help children and adolescents accomplish two goals: 1) understand how the media communicates and 2) examine the messages regarding a specific topic, such as nutrition and body image (Espinoza, Penelo, & Raich, 2013), alcohol and drugs (Chen, 2013; Kupersmidt, Scull, & Benson, 2012), or sexuality (Pinkleton et al., 2008). Depending on the program's specific goals and the adolescents participating in the program, benefits may include gains in knowledge, more critical viewing, and/or changes in attitudes, intended behavior, or actual behavior. Evidence-based programs lead to behavioral change that may persist for as long as 30 months (Espinoza et al., 2013); effects may differ for girls and boys based on the program's approach (Chen, 2013).

Helping Youth Think Critically about Media Content

There are several questions that young people can ask -- and answer -- about the media they're interacting with. Questions may need to be adjusted for an individual's understanding and experience with a given topic. The Center for Media Literacy offers these five key questions, each of which relates to a key concept.

I recommend separating question 2 into its component parts and specifically asking "what is represented" and "what is left out." Teens who are relatively inexperienced with a topic may have more difficulty identifying omissions. Specific questions about power dynamics or the presence of risk and safety messages can help identify unspoken content, while questions such as "what would you do in that situation" can facilitate problem solving.

For example, the prototypical 30-second beer commercial includes care-free fun by attractive 20-somethings who demonstrate some level of heterosexual attraction (or flirting), with a very brief reminder to be safe. Developed by large corporations, these commercials sell a lifestyle that goes beyond a brand/flavor, but is limited to young heterosexual adults. Men are shown actively doing things while women simply look attractive (Strate, 1992). Negatives such as cost, hangovers, and the potential for addiction are not addressed and the "please drink responsibly" message does little to counter any aspect of the commercial.

Embedded within this question is another question: who is the target audience? To the extent that media are selling a particular message, or are trying to attract a particular audience for their advertisers, we can consider who that audience is. We might then ask if the message would be understood the same way for different groups based on their gender, ethnicity, age, socio-economic status, social status (e.g., jocks, nerds), etc. Intersections or combinations among these groups can further refine the analysis.

We all know that ominous, creepy music in horror films is a cue that something bad is about to happen. We also know that many television shows include a "laugh track." In addition to these aspects of the soundtrack, we might ask about volume, lighting, camera angles and styles, and other production techniques. What message is being sent without words? One of the common messages is simply "pay attention," but other messages about what (or who) is good/bad are often transmitted this way. For a TV show with a laugh track, we might ask if the audience's reaction matches our own or if the audience favors one character over another, and why.

Examples: Working with Youth Creatively

One way to help teens think through these issues is to ask them to create media of their own.


We are embedded in a media-saturated world, from icons through feature-length movies. By teaching adolescents to ask a few simple questions, we can help them gain a better, deeper understanding of the explicit and implicit content they're being exposed to. From this understanding, they will be better able to connect to messages that fit their values and sense of self, and resist messages that do not.


Evaluating Websites

Students regularly seek information on the web, and need to know how to determine whether a site is trustworthy or not. Project Look Sharp provides questions and clues to help in Separating Fact and Fiction: Examining the Credibility of Information on the Internet.