The gift of media literacy skills pairs nicely with that new smartphone

Help young people become critical consumers of media messages and images, prior to receiving a new electronic device this holiday season.

During the holidays, some young people will receive gifts of smartphones, tablets, laptops and other electronic devices. With these devices comes the responsibility of connecting with others in safe and respectful ways. Helping kids learn to do this – and working with them to create expectations and strategies for healthy online behaviors is an important role for the adults in their lives.

Adults have a responsibility to help young people (and themselves) learn to be critical consumers of the wide variety of entertainment and advertising messages they take in when using these devices. According to a 2006 policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics, young people view more than 40,000 advertisements per year on television alone. Add to this, the number of ads that are built into social networking sites, entertainment websites and other Internet platforms, and it becomes clear that being able to understand, deconstruct and challenge media messages is an important skill for all of us to develop.

This is especially important when considering the impacts these messages can have. While many media messages and images can be positive in terms of how we view ourselves, other people and the world around us, they can also be detrimental to the healthy development of young people. For example, many messages related to girls and women feature incredibly narrow standards of beauty that are unrealistically perfect, thin and hypersexualized. When girls and women don’t fit these images – because they’re so unattainable, they choose not to, or both – they may feel anger and shame which can result in disordered eating, cutting, depression, substance use or other unhealthy or risky habits. In addition to affecting how we feel about ourselves, stereotypical messages about gender can also influence the ways we think about and interact with other people – even contributing to bullying and other hurtful behaviors. Consider the prevalence of messages related to boys and men that focus on being tough and aggressive in their relationships as opposed to being kind, caring and sensitive.

In her book The Skin We’re In: Teaching Our Teens to Be Emotionally Strong, Socially Smart and Spiritually Connected, author and psychologist Janie Ward offers four steps that adults can use to encourage young people to consider when thinking about media messages:

  • Read it: Be willing to see and notice hurtful and harmful images and situations in all kinds of media. Pay particular attention to messages about aspects of people’s identity – including race, gender, sexual orientation, class and disabilities.
  • Name it: Acknowledge the presence of these hurtful messages by naming them when you see them – even when it’s hard and painful. For example, if your favorite musical artist has created a video that hypersexualizes or degrades girls and women, be willing to clearly name these images as sexist, violent and hurtful.
  • Oppose it: Don’t minimize the existence and impacts of hurtful media messages by keeping your observations only to yourself! Honor your wisdom and challenge the messages by sharing your voice with others – even when it feels risky and hard.
  • Replace it: Put something new and affirming in place of the feeling, attitude or behavior being opposed. Take a stand for fairness and justice and find ways to act on your beliefs. Explore ways that young people have used sites like to challenge and change these kinds of injustices.

Michigan State University Extension provides opportunities for adults to learn more about these issues – including ways that media messages are linked to issues of bullying, bias and harassment. For more information, check out a new initiative called Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments.

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