Who's Teaching Our Kids Media Literacy?

Amanda Collins Bernier
Baystateparent Magazine
While children and teens may be fluent in the digital world and social media, they are not all adept at decoding what they see there.

Concerned by the misinformation she noticed being shared on social media, Gracie Gilligan wanted to tackle media literacy for her senior project at Maynard High School. What she discovered was that the need for education around media consumption goes far beyond recognizing “fake news.” 

In the spring, Gilligan, with the help of Watertown-based Media Literacy Now and the Media Education Lab at the University of Rhode Island, surveyed more than 500 students in grades 4-12, posing dozens of questions to gain insights into the way they understand and relate to different media. The survey explored whether students are learning the skills necessary to decode messages in social media, television, video games, newspapers, and other forms of media. 

Some of the results were reassuring. For example, 79% of students, including 95% of 12th graders surveyed, said they'd done a research project that required navigating media and interpreting information. And 66% of the students surveyed discussed in class how media can be beneficial or harmful to their health, identity, and relationships.

Other areas showed need for improvement: for example, only 45% of students overall –  52% of 12th graders – had learned how selling audience attention is the way media companies make money.

“The project really opened my eyes to how many benefits there are to media literacy education,” said Gilligan. “I went into it thinking about the smaller scope of bias and misinformation. But what I started to see was ‘wow, this could help with body image, negative stereotypes, and so much more.’” 

What is Media Literacy?

Media literacy is the ability to “decode” messages in the media, including understanding the system that those messages exist in, according to Erin McNeil, founder and president of Media Literacy Now. A central concept is that all media are constructed for a purpose and thus, inherently come with some degree of bias or filter.

“Not only, ‘what does this message want me to think and do, but why is it appearing in front of me?’” McNeill said. “Then, it’s the ability to assess those messages on our thoughts and feelings.” 

Troubled by bias, stereotypes, and sexism she noticed in the cartoons and movies her children were watching, McNeill founded Media Literacy Now in 2011 to create a movement around making media literacy widely understood and viewed as an essential element in public education. More than a decade later, as media continues to evolve and infiltrate our lives, the need for this deeper understanding is even more pressing.

“We used to say, keep the TV in the living room, in the public space so you can see what they’re watching. That seems like such a quaint idea now,” said McNeill. “They all have smartphones, iPads, and everything they need to do is online. It’s very, very hard for parents to keep track.” 

While youth may be fluent in the digital world and social media, they may not be adept at decoding what they see there.

A 2016 study by Stanford University found that across middle school, high school and college students, “young people’s ability to reason about the information on the internet can be summed up in one word: bleak.” 

But the issue spans beyond misinformation or news consumption. Carefully curated images on platforms like Instagram and TikTok can make it difficult for youth to be in touch with reality. 

“This problem was only made worse when the pandemic hit, and almost all of our views of others were through the lens of social media,” said Gilligan, 17. “Teen girls especially were now limited to comparing themselves to edited pictures posted by people they knew, or those posted by the stunning stars of whatever new popular television series was on Netflix.” 

McNeill said learning about media messages should start as early as possible. At the youngest ages, it can be as simple as letting children know that they can ask questions about what they see. 

“It has to be part of the foundation for their education, because as they get older, it becomes much more complicated,” she said. 

Who’s Teaching Media Literacy? 

A growing number of states are requiring that students learn media literacy in schools. Media Literacy Now reports that 14 states have taken “substantial legislative action for media literacy education.” That includes Illinois, the first state to require that media literacy be taught in classrooms; and Colorado, which is requiring their state board of education to adopt revisions to the reading, writing, and civics standards that identify the knowledge and skills related to media literacy. 

In Massachusetts, McNeill helped spearhead a bill that called for Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) support for providing media literacy standards, resources and training for teachers in public schools. First introduced in 2011, the Media Literacy in Education bill sought a statewide K-12 curriculum that included lessons on persuasive techniques, responsible social media use, and how to recognize bias, spin, and misinformation.

Though the legislation never passed, there have been gains. 

The Bay State passed two bills in 2019 requiring DESE to include the study of media messages; one within a personal financial literacy education bill and the other within a civics education bill. 

The state’s framework maps out what students should know and be able to do at each grade level, but it leaves it up to districts to decide what curricula, materials, and methods to use, said DESE spokeswoman Jacqueline Reis.

“It’s not comprehensive, but it’s progress,” said McNeill. 

What Parents Can Do 

Ultimately, raising informed media consumers and creators begins at home, experts say, and parents play an important role in giving children the tools they need to navigate the modern media landscape.

Gilligan said she’s gotten a wider view of media and its impacts through talking to her parents versus educators.

Among the results of her survey, Gilligan was most surprised to learn that few others are having those conversations; only 12% reported they often comment on the pros and cons of online life with their parents or guardians and 51% said they hardly ever do this.

McNeill said parents can start the conversation by first asking questions. 

“Ask them what they’re seeing, why they’re seeing it, and really engage in this conversation at home,” McNeill said.

At the youngest ages, simply start by explaining that people on TV or in movies are actors performing roles. And help them realize that all media they consume is “made by a person who made certain decisions,” she said. 

Parents should also talk to their children’s teachers to ask if media literacy is part of their child’s education, and if not, suggest it to school administrators and committees. 

“It’s important that we're asking for this,” McNeill said. “It’s more likely to happen if parents are asking for it.”

Media Literacy Now seeks to identify areas of strength and areas that can be improved in media literacy education. A 24-question survey, available at medialiteracynow.org/school-survey digs into school experiences, at-home discussions, and what benefits of media literacy education are most important to students.