How have you been feeling? Pretty overwhelmed and inundated with information, images, news, and thoughts lately, huh? That is natural given the rare nature of our living context right now—a worldwide pandemic! COVID-19 has us tethered to our devices and screens due to social distancing, stay-at-home orders, and basically avoiding physical contact with others which is resulting in us consuming more media than ever.
If there is a screen…we are on it! This is necessary to find information about the things we value and are important to us, like our families, friends, faith, community, politics, and pleasure. But what does this increase in media consumption and screen time mean for our mental health and wellbeing? In order to prevent harm and protect wellbeing, we encourage you to become an expert in media literacy!
What is media literacy and why is it important?
The Media Literacy Project says media literacy “is the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, and create media… [and] takes into account history, culture, privilege, and power.”
Media can be anything that conveys or communicates messages, ideas, or data—including the television, radio, printed materials, social media, even your family and friends. This means people with media literacy skills learn to:
- Develop critical thinking skills
- Understand how media messages shape our culture and society
- Recognize what the media maker wants us to believe or do
- Name the techniques of persuasion used
- Recognize bias, spin, misinformation, and lies
- Discover the parts of the story that are not being told
- Evaluate media messages based on our own experiences, skills, beliefs, and values
- Create and distribute our own media messages
- Advocate for a changed media systems
Overall, these skills are important to help protect your mental wellbeing from unsolicited messages that may be harmful to you and harmful to others. This does not mean you can no longer enjoy the consumption of media for entertainment (who doesn’t love a little ‘bad TV’ here and there?). It simply means you are less likely to incur and potentially perpetuate negative impacts of media, thus appreciating it more.
How do I do media literacy?
Not so fast—this is not a one-step process! Media Literacy is an on-going process that takes time to achieve because media is ever-changing and we are, too. Every day (since we have been born), our brain has been learning hundreds of different messages, which will take time to unlearn. To be media literate is to have an ongoing informed inquiry and critical thinking skills. Center for Media Literacy work of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, called the Empowerment Spiral model, which outlines how to break complex topics or concepts into four short-term learning steps that stimulate different aspects of the brain and enhance our ability to evolve new knowledge from experience. These steps are:
- Awareness: What observations and personal connections for potential insight can be taken from the media? This includes any “ah-ha” moments that could prompt more questions or ways of thinking and exploration; it can include qualitative and quantitative information or the need to find out more.
- Analysis: Thinking about “how” an issue came to be, which goes deeper than just trying to identify some exact meaning/definition, like in an ad, song or an episode of a sitcom. Try avoiding “why” and ask more “what/how” questions to increase the critical process of inquiry, exploration and discovery.
- Reflection: This step looks deeper to ask “So what does this mean for me or others?” Depending on who you are, this is where biases and lived experiences come up. Things like philosophical or religious traditions, ethical values, social justice, or political implications may come up here. This is where values for individual and collective decision-making become apparent.
- Action: This step is the opportunity to formulate constructive action ideas, usually ones that result in some kind of change. This change can include behaviors, attitudes, motivation, point-of-view, etc. In this context, action can be anything as a result of thinking through this process, including not doing anything at all.
“The power of media literacy lies in figuring out how the construction of any media product influences and contributes to the meaning we make of it.” –medialit.org
Generally speaking, the model helps the brain deconstruct any form of media, helping to decipher what is bringing on feelings of anxiety, depression, guilt, or stress. Commonsensemedia.org offers more questions to ask yourself to increase your media literacy skills:
- What am I actually looking at/hearing?
- How is it making me feel? Why?
- How does this message make other people feel? Why?
- Who created this media? What influence do they have?
- What techniques are being used to make this message credible or believable? Were there any details left out, and why?
- Why did they make this media or what messages are they trying to send? Who did they make it for?
- How is this helping me or hurting me?
- Who is benefiting from this media?
- What attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors is this condoning?
- Who has power/influence in this picture?
Start engaging in media literacy and let us know how it goes! It is exciting to see folx ask critical questions about messages that no longer support positive wellbeing outcomes for all and challenging them, which speaks to the power of media literacy! Just as there are negative messages in media, there are also very positive ones, so do not be afraid to create and curate your own!