By Raising Children Network
spacer spacer PInterest spacer
spacer Print spacer Email
Dad and teenager on computer credit
Your child interacts with media every day. Some of it might inform or entertain her, and some will try to sell her things. It can be overwhelming for your child – and you! Media literacy is about helping your child learn to understand and question media messages.

Media literacy: the basics

Media literacy is about having the skills to access, understand, question, critically analyse, evaluate and create media, such as television, DVDs, apps, photographs, print and online content.

Children and teenagers who are media literate are more aware of the way media content is made, where it comes from and what its purpose is. They’re more confident about voicing their opinions about media. They’re also safer online and less likely to be manipulated by the media.

Basic media literacy involves understanding and making judgments about:

  • content – the obvious content and the hidden or embedded content like gambling built into apps and video games
  • advertising and other forms of marketing
  • bias
  • different media forms and how they’re created
  • effects of media ownership on the way information is presented
  • online safety
  • censorship.

Your child also needs extra media literacy skills when it comes to online media.

Technical literacy
This means knowing how to understand and use computers, the internet, web browsers, software programs and apps and technical language. For example, it’s important to understand that the internet is global, or that when you post text, images or video, there’s no guarantee this content can ever be removed.

Content literacy
This includes understanding how a search engine like Google ranks search results, and being able to work out who has created a website – that is, the difference between .com, .gov and .org sites. Working out whether the information is based on expert or amateur opinion, and whether information is from a reliable source, is also important. So is the ability to spot marketing, advertising and scams.

Communication literacy
This is knowing the difference between types of communication on the internet, including social networking, online chat and chat rooms, multiplayer games, blogs and discussion forums. These all have their own formal and informal rules.

Creative and visual literacy
This is being able to create and upload online content, understand how online visual content is edited and constructed, and understand copyright.

Media literacy skills are more effective at keeping your child safe online than internet filtering software. You can read more ideas for keeping children safe online in our articles on digital citizenship and internet safety

Helping your child develop media and digital literacy

Becoming media literate yourself is a great start to the process. Getting familiar with media in general, and how different media forms are made, will help you guide your child.

It’s also a good idea to keep up to date with the latest social media, because new social media are constantly being invented – for example, Tumblr, Snapchat and Instagram. Children and teenagers are often early adopters of new technology.

Encourage your child to question
This can help your child sort out facts from opinion, identify advertising and product placement, understand bias, be aware of the misuse of statistics, make judgments about quality and identify media scams. She should also be aware that she doesn’t have to just accept everything she comes across in the media as ‘fact’ or ‘truth’. 

You might like to encourage your child to ask himself questions about media content. For example:

  • Is this newspaper article a report or an opinion column?
  • Who paid for this magazine page about this new product?
  • What sources of information did the author use in putting this piece together?
  • What is the author’s intention?
  • Whose voice is missing?

The media and a lot of internet content is owned, and media ownership influences published content and points of view.

All media content is edited and constructed. In other words, some things have been included and other bits have been left out. Even the news (which you might think of as the ‘facts’) reflects the way editors, directors, producers and media owners see the world – after all, some things make it on to the news and some don’t.

You and your child could look at different current affairs programs to check out the differences in the way they report things. Or you could ask your child why she thinks different media content – on the TV or internet, or in magazines and newspapers and so on – uses certain images, music and words, and what messages these help to convey.

You might also like to talk with your child about points of view that differ from those in whatever TV program or newspaper article your child is watching or reading, or in advertising. The movie Hoodwinked is useful for this kind of activity, because it presents different characters’ points of view.

It can also be helpful to model your own media literacy for your child. Discuss your choices with him – for example, why you choose certain TV programs or websites, or how you respond to advertising. This will give you the chance to reinforce your family’s values and beliefs while teaching your child to question what he hears and sees in the media.

We all take different meanings from media messages, depending on our backgrounds, interests and values. We are many audiences, not just one. For example, one person might think something is funny, but somebody else might see it differently. 

Talk about advertising
Talking with your child about what advertising is, and what it’s trying to do, can help your child learn the difference between advertising messages, and other media messages that are designed to entertain, inform or educate. 

For example, you could pick out an ad in a magazine or on TV. Ask your child to think about who’s behind it, and what they want you to think about the brand or product. Or you could play ‘spot the strategically placed brand-name products’ in a movie with your child. You might also want to discuss news content that is actually product promotion.

Talk about internet content
The internet can bring the best and worst information that’s out there into your home. Internet access is getting easier for children through phones and tablets, so you and your child need to be able to sort the good from the bad. The following ideas might help:

  • Search the internet together. You might use a few search engines, try different search words, and talk about which websites contain the best or most useful information and why. Also encourage your child to look beyond the first link in search results. 
  • Talk about different kinds of websites. Does the web address end in .com, .org or .gov? Look into what these mean together.
  • Encourage your child to be careful about what she clicks. Many sites contain ‘pop-ups’ or animated advertising that entice you to ‘click here’ by promising free products or money. These are generally scams and can contain computer viruses. 

In Australia, there are official bodies that regulate and censor the media to ensure that the public is protected from content that is illegal or offensive.
  • Last updated or reviewed 26-06-2015
  • Acknowledgements Content in this article was developed in collaboration with Amanda Third, University of Western Sydney.