Youth and media: Equip them to challenge unhealthy messages

Draw from media literacy and media activism approaches to help kids develop a critical consciousness about media messages.

Every day and every waking hour, we encounter and are influenced by thousands of words and messages from a wide range of media sources. This influence may be especially significant for children and youth who are forming and deepening their ideas about themselves, other people and relationships.

In these interactions with media, kids may be influenced by sources that they interact with intentionally (television shows, movies, music, websites, books, magazines, etc.). They may also be learning from media that they interact with unintentionally (billboards, t-shirts, store window displays, movie previews, television commercials, the magazines at the store check-out counter, Internet pop-up sites, packaging on food and other products, etc.).

Helping kids to navigate and critically examine these media messages is an important role for the adults in their lives; we can draw from media literacy and media activism tools to build helpful discussions into everyday media use. While watching television or a movie, listening to music, noticing print ads or product packaging or checking out information online with young people, you can pose questions like the following:

  • Who do you think created this message and why? Is there something they’d like us to feel, do, know or buy?
  • Who benefits from this message? Who is disadvantaged by it? What are the costs to all of us because of messages like this?
  • Is anyone profiting from the message? Are they making money or gaining power?
  • What kinds of techniques are they using to get our attention? For example, are they using loud or soft music, bright or soft colors, lots of words or few words, or shocking or suggestive images?
  • Are they using emotions to make us feel something? Are they using fear to sell something? (Such as, “No one will like you unless you lose weight.”) Are they using hype? (Such as, “Our product gets rid of acne overnight!”) Are they making us feel insecure if we don’t “fit in”? (Such as, “Only losers look like the people in this program.”) Are they using a spokesperson they think we admire?
  • What makes this message seem realistic or unrealistic? Are there stereotypes involved?
  • What might you learn about other people as a result of seeing or hearing this message – especially related to human differences like age, gender, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic group, disabilities and abilities, looks, sexual orientation and religion? What might you learn about yourself and your own differences?
  • How might different people understand or react to this message in different ways? Are other people’s responses as valid as yours or mine? (For example, a message showing people who seem “perfect” might make one person think or feel insecure about her appearance, while another person might not notice this. An image that portrays young people as “dangerous” and “not to be trusted” might be insulting to young people but not to adults.)
  • Whose points of view are represented in the message and whose are omitted?
  • Do situations involving alcohol and other substances, violence or mean-spirited behaviors, or sexual activity explore outcomes and consequences that can happen as a result for those involved? How about for their families or communities?

Tailor these kinds of questions to kids at different ages, such as looking for opportunities to spark the sense of fairness that is so important to younger children. Build on early adolescents’ growing critical capacities to analyze and challenge negative or hurtful messages. Find connections for older adolescents who are exploring their own areas of identity and who may be eager to question narrow and limited portrays of human differences.

Also, be a resource for helping people of all ages identify sources that represent positive, healthy, thoughtful and enriching media experiences. And when they do encounter unhealthy messages, encourage young people to speak out. Look to examples like Powered By Girl, a girl-driven media activism site designed and maintained by the Girls Advisory Board of Hardy Girls Healthy Women and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies students at Colby College.

To learn more about these issues and ways to keep these conversations ongoing, visit the articles, “Youth and media: Help youth see through negative messages ” and “Kids and media: Create ongoing dialog about its use."

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