Media Literacy for Digital Safety

In a society where media is an increasingly salient part of life, and in which youth media consumption has been consistently rising for decades,22 digital safety is a prominent concern. Decades of research support the notion that media content can influence consumers' thoughts and behaviors, particularly those of impressionable audiences such as children.15 Youth are particularly susceptible to safety risks online, since there is no guarantee of accuracy or age-appropriateness of information they may see on the Internet and social media. This is due in large part to the capacity and popularity of circulating user-generated content online, combined with the inability to effectively regulate online content and user traffic. Online resources are widely used by young people, making it particularly important to provide them with a set of criteria by which they can assess source credibility, discount untrustworthy information, understand motives behind mediated messages, and learn to stay safe in the digital environment12. Media literacy education can help with all of this, in addition to teaching children how to responsibly create and disseminate their own messages.

Frequency of Teen Internet Use Chart

Media Literacy Education

Media literacy is defined as an individual's ability to deconstruct, evaluate, analyze, and create a wide array of mediated messages.1 Within the study of media literacy, two conflicting perspectives exist regarding the purpose of media literacy efforts: protectionism and empowerment.11, 13 Protectionism is all about minimizing harmful effects associated with media consumption.11 Empowerment, on the other hand, focuses on the shift toward more digital and interactive media platforms, and recognizes that audiences no longer just consume, but also create media content.11 The National Association of Media Literacy Education has adopted this empowerment view, promoting a focus on cultivating active, autonomous, and critical processers of media content.16

Media literacy education is intended to enhance awareness and understanding of meaning within media messages, thereby enabling individuals to become responsible processers, users, and creators of media content.

Media literacy education is intended to enhance awareness and understanding of meaning within media messages,7 thereby enabling individuals to become responsible processers, users, and creators of media content.6 One major objective, then, is to bolster critical thinking skills. An effective method for doing this is to increase young people's skepticism of constructed media messages.2

Media messages are always created with a goal in mind, and that goal is often to persuade the audience to think, feel, or act a certain way. The expectation for media literacy education is to advance skepticism, or skeptical message processing, to such an extent that it can override other powerful emotional responses to messages and overcome persuasive tactics.2 A strategy often used to activate young people's skepticism is to encourage students to reflect on the motives underlying a purposefully constructed message, as well as their own thought processes while consuming a message.5 Activating skepticism in this manner emphasizes the decision-making process the message creators experienced when constructing the message, as well as the decision-making process the student experienced when being exposed to the message.5 By learning to understand these processes, children can learn to change them as well.

Decision-making abilities are not innate but are rather developed throughout life.9 Similarly, skepticism is a skill that is learned and improved upon in the course of life experience.4 Thus, skepticism can be taught and strengthened. Research investigating the role of skepticism in young people's decision making reports that decreased trust of media messages can reduce their appeal5 and increased skepticism can reduce positive social norms regarding risky behaviors.3 Both of these outcomes can help students learn to avert negative media influence and make responsible choices.

Media literacy education is proven effective for making children more aware, active, and responsible when using media.

Media literacy efforts have been employed in the pursuit of varied goals such as:

  • diminishing children's future intentions to use alcohol2
  • reducing adolescents' intentions to use tobacco18
  • increasing adolescents' awareness of media misrepresentation of sexual encounters17
  • increasing children's understanding of persuasive advertising techniques14
  • equipping children with skills to recognize stereotyping in the media21
  • decreasing children's aggressive tendencies in response to violent media content20

Awareness of Unintended Effects

Studies have found the implementation of media literacy education to be successful by positively influencing students' media knowledge, critical thinking, perceived realism of mediated narratives, awareness of media influence, attitudes toward media content, behaviors related to media exposure, and self-efficacy.12 However, an obstacle challenging educators is managing and avoiding unintended consequences of media literacy education.

Unintended effects are a concern of many different types of communication interventions8 and have been documented across a variety of topics such as tobacco cessation,10 safe sex promotion,19 and aggression reduction efforts.7 Specifically, some studies report an increase in the outcomes they were intending to reduce, a phenomenon known as the "boomerang effect".7 To avoid a boomerang effect, educators must take great care in selecting media content to be used for educational purposes, meaning the content will convey the educational message without putting the viewers at undue risk by being exposed to it. Educators must also be conscientious of the manner in which media literacy education is delivered. Oftentimes, especially when dealing with adolescents, young people rebel against recommendations to assert their autonomy. These factors should be carefully considered when developing curricula.


Media literacy education is proven effective for making children more aware, active, and responsible when using media. Important points for educators to keep in mind include:

  • the shift toward an empowerment perspective on media literacy that upholds children's autonomy and creativity
  • the importance of teaching children how to think critically and to skeptically process media messages
  • the need to avoid unnecessary exposure to negative media content within media literacy curricula

In the event that these considerations are in place, media literacy education should prove to be a worthwhile undertaking in the classroom, and help to keep youth safe and wise while navigating an ever-growing digital environment.


1Aufderheide, P. (1993). Media literacy: A report of the national leadership conference on media literacy (Research Report No. ISBN-0-89843-137-9). Retrieved from

2Austin, E. W., Chen, M.-J., & Grube, J. W. (2006). How does alcohol advertising influence underage drinking? The role of desirability, identification and skepticism. Journal of Adolescent Health, 38, 376-384. doi:101016/j.jadohealth.2005.08.017

3Austin, E. W., & Johnson, K. K. (1997). Effects of general and alcohol-specific media literacy training on children's decision making about alcohol. Journal of Health Communication, 2, 17-42.

4Austin, E. W., & Knaus, C. (2000). Predicting the potential for risky behavior among those "too young" to drink as the result of appealing advertising. Journal of Health Communication, 5, 13-27.

5Austin, E. W., Miller, A. C.-R., Silva, J., Guerra, P., Geisler, N., Gamboa, L., … & Kuechle, B. (2002). The effects of increased cognitive involvement on college students' interpretations of magazine advertisements for alcohol. Communication Research, 29(2), 155-179.

6Austin, E. W., Pinkleton, B. E., Hust, S. J. T., & Cohen, M. (2005). Evaluation of an American Legacy Foundation/Washington State Department of Health media literacy pilot study. Health Communication, 18(1), 75-95. doi:10.1207/s15327027hc101_4

7Byrne, S., Linz, D., & Potter, W. J. (2009). A test of competing cognitive explanations for the boomerang effect in response to the deliberate disruption of media-induced aggression. Media Psychology, 12, 227-248. doi:10.1080/15213260903052265

8Cho, H., & Salmon, C. T. (2007). Unintended effects of health communication campaigns. Journal of Communication, 57, 293-317. doi:10.1111/j.1460-2466.2007.00344.x

9Elias, M. J., Branden-Muller, L. R., & Sayette, M. A. (1991).Teaching the foundations of social decision making and problem solving in the elementary school. In J. Baron & R.V. Brown (Eds.), Teaching decision making to adolescents (pp. 161-184). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

10Grandpre, J., Alvaro, E. M., Burgoon, M., Miller, C. H., & Hall, J. R. (2003). Adolescent reactance and anti-smoking campaigns: A theoretical approach. Health Communication, 15(3), 349-366. doi:10.1207/s15327027hc1503_6

11Hobbs, R. (2011). The state of media literacy: A response to Potter. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 55(3), 419-430. doi:10.1080/08838151.2011.597594

12Jeong, S.-H., Cho, H., & Hwang, Y. (2012). Media literacy interventions: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Communication, 62, 454-472. doi:10.1111/j.1460-2466.2012.01643.x

13Livingstone, S. (2004). Media literacy and the challenge of new information and communication technologies. The Communication Review, 7, 3-14. doi:10.1080/10714420490280152

14Livingstone, S., & Helsper, E. J. (2006). Does advertising literacy mediate the effects of advertising on children? A critical examination of two linked research literatures in relation to obesity and food choice. Journal of Communication, 56, 560-584. doi:10.1111/j.1460-2466.2006.00301.x

15Nabi, R., & Oliver, M. B. (2009). The SAGE handbook of media processes and effects. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.

16National Association for Media Literacy Education. (2007, November). Core principles of media literacy education in the United States. Retrieved from

17Pinkleton, B. W., Austin, E. W., Chen, Y.-C., & Cohen, M. (2013). Assessing effects of a media literacy-based intervention on US adolescents' responses to and interpretations of sexual media messages. Journal of Children and Media, 7(4), 463-479. doi:10.1080/17482798.2013.781512

18Pinkleton, B. W., Austin, E. W., Cohen, M., Chen, Y.-C., & Fitzgerald, E. (2007). A statewide evaluation of the effectiveness of media literacy training to prevent tobacco use among adolescents. Health Communication, 21(1), 23-34.

19Priester, J. R. (2002). Sex, drugs and attitudinal ambivalence: How feelings of evaluative tension influence alcohol use and safe sex behaviors. In W. D. Crano & M. Burgoon (Eds.), Mass media and drug prevention (pp. 145–162). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

20Scharrer, E. (2006). "I noticed more violence:" The effects of a media literacy program on critical attitudes toward media violence. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 21(1), 69-86.

21Steinke, J., Lapinski, M. K., Crocker, N., Zietsman-Thomas, A., Williams, Y., Evergreen, S. H., & Kuchibhotla, S. (2007). Assessing media influences on middle school-aged children's perceptions of women in science using the draw-a-scientist test (DAST). Science Communication, 29(1), 35-64. doi:10.1177/1075547007306508

22Strasburger, V. C., Wilson, B. J., & Jordan, A. B. (2014). Children, adolescents, and the media (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.