Media literacy: the basics

Media literacy is about having the skills to access, understand, question, critically analyse, evaluate and create media, like 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, the hidden or embedded content like gambling built into apps and video games, and any content that feels upsetting or uncomfortable
  • 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.

Children and teenagers also need the following extra media literacy skills for online media.

Technical literacy
This means knowing how to understand and use computers, the internet, web browsers, software programs, 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.

Your child should also know how to check and change his privacy settings, report inappropriate or unsettling content, and block content he doesn’t want.

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 – for example, the difference between .com, .gov and .org sites. Working out whether  information is based on expert or amateur opinion and whether it’s from a reliable source is also important, as 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 media, 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 when copyright applies.

Media literacy skills are better at keeping your child safe online than internet filtering software. Positive discussions with you about online activities also help to keep your child safe. 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

Developing your own media literacy
Developing media literacy yourself is a great start to helping your child. And if you know that your child has more media and digital literacy than you do, ask her to show you things like privacy settings and report buttons. This sends the message that you’re interested in what she’s doing online and that you care that she’s safe.

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

Role-modelling media literacy
You can model your own media literacy for your child by discussing your choices with him – for example, why you choose certain TV programs or websites, or how you respond to advertising. This gives 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.

Encourage a questioning attitude
A questioning attitude 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.

You can encourage your child to ask 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?
  • Are there other points of view that are have been left out?

Encourage awareness of how media works
It’s important for your child to be aware that the media and a lot of internet content is owned, and the person or organisation that owns the media  influences the content and points of view that are published.

Likewise, 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 together 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. The movie Hoodwinked is useful for this kind of activity, because it presents different characters’ points of view.

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, educate, or express an opinion or viewpoint.

For example, you could pick out an advertisement 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 watch a movie with your child and play ‘spot the strategically placed brand-name products’. You might also want to discuss news content that’s actually product promotion.

Talk about internet content
The internet can bring the best and worst information that’s out there into your home. Children can easily access the internet through  phones and tablets as well as computers, 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.
  • Encourage your child to be careful about what he clicks. Many sites contain ‘pop-ups’ or animated advertising that entice you to ‘click here’ by promising free products or money. They’re generally scams and can contain computer viruses.
  • Talk about different kinds of websites, and why some are restricted by age. Explain that there’s disturbing material on the internet. You could use an example from your child’s experience, like a ‘scare’ where a creature leers out of the screen. It’s important for your child to know that if she sees something that upsets her, she should talk about it with you.
Children can come across adult content on the internet and might show it to other children. Talking about pornography with your child is the best way to help develop his resilience and provide some perspective if he sees something upsetting.