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The variety of media which surround us today is so much greater than what we experienced a generation ago. Just over a decade ago, television, videos, magazines and books were the most popular sources of information and entertainment. Today, in addition to these media, teens have access to computers, the World Wide Web, CD-ROMs and other new types of media.
We all consume a great quantity of information (including some we are unconscious of) in a variety of ways. Many of us question the effects of these media, especially on young minds. The importance of media literacy becomes clear, however, when we learn from the experts that the more young people understand the media — its complexity and tendency to distort the truth — the less likely they will be to adopt the unhealthy behaviors they see suggested or portrayed there.
Media literacy has been defined as the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, and communicate information in a variety of forms. The meaning of the word "literacy" has always been applied to the usual ways we receive information in our culture. In the era of the printing press, for example, literacy referred to the ability to read and write print. However, in our present society, we receive more of our information from pictures than from print and more from TV than from books. With computers, CD-ROMs and other sources of information, we receive a complex combination of images and text. So today's young people need a broader definition of what it means to be literate. (See "Learn to Discern" under More Information/Resources)
An Overview of the Issues
Media carry messages, and these messages affect our feelings and attitudes. For example, in advertising, our competitive marketplace demands that advertisers get the biggest "bang for their buck." So more often today, ads also include subtext, or messages which we consumers absorb without thinking. Subliminal (not-so-obvious) messages are cleverly embedded in images to stimulate our emotions. Examples are frequently spotted in ads showing couples sharing breath mints (or chewing gum or cigarettes or cocktails) in which fine details of body language are manipulated to convey more sexually explicit messages.
An important trend for educators to understand is the shift of Madison Avenue's advertising budget to target younger audiences. Advertisers see youth as an especially hot market since they have walk-around cash and can be easily influenced. Teens are targeted for sales of consumable products, such as tobacco, alcohol, and fast foods. They are also targeted for subtle and not-so-subtle messages about attitudes and behavior, such as drinking and engaging in sex or violence. Obviously, advertisers still believe sex "sells."
While studies have shown a cause-and-effect relationship between violence and the media, we have not seen hard evidence of the relationship between sex in the media and real life sex. Even so, it is reasonable to expect that the media’s sexually suggestive content — which rarely depicts responsible and healthful sexual behavior — exerts some influence on plugged-in teens (Strasberger, 1993). The most recent analysis of TV found that more than two-thirds of prime-time programs contain sexual content, but only nine percent of incidents mention risks or responsibilities of sexual activity or the need for contraception (Kunkel, 1999). We are lead to wonder if teens think "everyone's doing it" partly because the media depict early sexual activity as behavioral norm.
The volume of information communicated today, as well as the variety of media formats available, challenge all of us to filter, accept and/or discard information and media messages. Young people who understand that life depicted by the media is not real are less likely to adopt unhealthy attitudes or behaviors depicted there. The good news is that parents and school programs can use media literacy as a tool to counteract the adverse effects of the media.
What Educators Can Do
Educators have many opportunities to help their students become more media literate. Some educators encourage their students to create their own print ads, as "spoof ads" which mock or poke fun at the original ads. The organization, Adbusters, offers samples of spoof ads and instructions on how to create your own spoof ad on their web site at: http://adbusters.org/spoofads/printad/.
One of the easiest and most effective exercises involves having students discuss what they see in advertisements around them. Educators can teach youth a different way to look at media, especially ads, by viewing them with "reality glasses," a frame of reference that enables students to spot the techniques used to sell the product.
The New Mexico Media Literacy Project (NMMLP), a successful grassroots media literacy program, has developed guidelines for "quick deconstruction of media." They encourage educators to ask students the following questions as they view a media example:
Who paid for the media? Why?
Who is being targeted?
What messages and values are being expressed?
What kind of lifestyle is presented? Is it glamorized? How?
What is the text of the message? Is there a subtext?
What tools or techniques of persuasion are used?
In what ways is this a healthy and/or unhealthy example of media?
Answering these questions helps young people recognize the carefully designed strategies that go into media production. With the deeper understanding that media education provides, youth develop critical viewing skills, and some healthy skepticism, as they are exposed to the manipulative techniques used in popular media.
Educators can find more ideas and information about the effects of media education at the NMMLP web site: www.nmmlp.org. Also, check out this month’s Skills for Youth.