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Why Is Media Literacy Important?

The influence of the media should not be underestimated. By mid-adolescence, teens have watched many thousands of hours of television—more time than they spend with teachers in school. Add to that figure the hours devoted to surfing the Internet, playing video games, watching videos and DVDs, listening to the radio, and attending movies, and the media’s effect becomes clear.

By helping our teens become media literate, we can help protect them from pressures from advertising and other media forms to smoke, drink, use drugs, have sex, or eat unhealthy foods. We also can help them build communication skills, encourage them to consider multiple interpretations of media messages, put portrayals of themselves and others in perspective, and improve media use habits, such as changing ritualistic viewing behaviors. In addition, we can improve the media use habits of the entire family and promote more proactive behavior among all family members.

Media literacy is not media bashing; the goal is not to ridicule the media. Media are dominant forces in our culture and an important part of our teenagers’ lives. Media should be evaluated fairly, not denigrated. Media literacy is also no silver bullet or magic wand; it will not instantly solve all of our problems. But it is our best defense in resisting manipulation and keeping a perspective on the images and messages that are a part of media and youth culture.

As you employ these skills at home, remember that the heart of media literacy lies in the discussion. There are many activities that you can do with your children, but nothing is more important than talking with them about what we watch, hear, and read. Keep discussions relaxed; this takes the pressure off of teens to get the “right” answer. Draw out their ideas and guide them to critically examine what they see and hear. Remember to keep probing the answer, as this helps young people expand their thoughts. This helps them focus and helps us understand how they perceive what they view. It doesn’t matter so much what questions you ask; the important thing is to get youth to express and challenge what they see and hear.

Young people can learn how to read between the lines so that they can understand exactly what music videos, movies, and other forms of communication that reach youth are saying to them. The media literacy ladder is a good way to organize the discussion.