Media Literacy: A 21st Century Approach to Wellness

I have been teased in the past since I consider media literacy a solution to many of the world’s problems. After being asked to speak at the Wellness Symposium at the Weill-Cornell Medical School in Doha, Qatar, I’ve decided to share my reasons that I think media literacy can contribute to wellness – both mental AND physical.  Ready?

Mean World Syndrome

This term, coined by George Gerbner, represents the idea that those who consume a large amount of violent media or violent news programming tend to consider the world a much more violent place than it really is.  Crime rates are actually down but if you ask anyone on the street, they might state that the world has never been more violent.

This study suggests that the presentations of human suffering in media programs leads viewers to feel a loss of control and increased emotional impact.

Social media play a role in this as well, since during breaking news events we tend to turn to our mobile screens in an attempt to make sense of the world.

So how can media literacy affect this? If we analyze the economic structure of the news media – the pressure for subscribers, ratings and clicks – it might help us understand why these graphic images are so prevalent. In an age when we consume (on average) eleven hours a day of mass media, it takes more and more to gain our attention.

Perhaps media literacy education can help us realize that the “news” is NOT the actual compilation of the newsworthy stories of the day, but the compilation of the stories that the editors think will gain the most attention. If we understand the motivations behind the stories and images chosen, perhaps we will be less likely to assume they represent “the whole” of the world.

Media literacy can also help us understand they how/why of viral Tweets during breaking news and ways to determine if they are legitimate. We need to remember the Breaking News Consumer Handbook and how it is up to US to NOT share false or misleading images during breaking news. Check images using Google Reverse Image Search or verify those viral videos with this tool from the Columbia Journalism Review.

Understanding the structure of the media – especially during breaking news – can help us make better sense of our world and see it more rationally. And correctly.

Body Image

The role the media play in our perceptions of our physical selves has been studied ad nauseam.  This study showed that the presence of plastic surgery advertisements and plastic surgery reality program have a negative impact on the way women and girls perceive their bodies.  Genders perceive media presentations differently as well. According to this study, girls compare their bodies for attractiveness and boys compare for athletic ability.

Smart media producers portray an “aspirational lifestyle”, where everyone portrayed is thin, fit and stylish. If the media consumers are presented with these images (which in nearly all cases have been digitally altered) we are more likely to feel less-confident and more likely to purchase the products that promise us this new, thinner lifestyle.

Media literacy education can help students understand the role that advertising plays in the media machine: how in many cases, media productions are created specifically to deliver certain audiences to certain advertisers. And who’s going to try “self-improvement” products if one feels good about oneself?

Food Choice

So Type 2 diabetes is on the rise in children and teens, and more than one-third of Americans are obese.  We all know what it takes to eat healthy – and yet for many (including myself!) it is difficult to do.

Have we considered teaching kids how advertising works, particularly fast-food? Or how packaging works to capture our attention?

There are dozens of resources available for evaluating and analyzing food advertisements. Here are some great resources from Frank Baker’s site as well as some tips from The Conversation.

We can’t ban food advertising, obviously – but we can sure help students OUTSMART it.  This program in Taiwan actually had students making different food purchasing decisions after an advertising-literacy program.


While we’re analyzing advertising techniques, let’s critique some tobacco advertising as well! Teens have been told forever that smoking is bad, but perhaps we should try another angle.  Let’s teach them how the ads are tricking them. Teaching students how tobacco advertising works has shown to actually drop smoking rates.


This is a hot topic right now: increases in adult and teen depression based on social media use are on the rise. How can we help students navigate this digital world in a healthy way?  Tough to do – when reading YouTube comments or the feed of a Twitter troll can make one think there aren’t any pleasant people left in the world.

I suggest we teach students how these social media platform are designed – and WHY. It might not be a cure for what ails them, but it might help them realize the role they play in the “social media machine”. Do they understand that if they are using a website or app for free, then THEY ARE THE PRODUCT BEING SOLD?  Are they familiar with the concept of “compare and despair“, and do they have coping mechanisms in place for when they feel it?

My 3 Favorite Media Literacy Questions:

Let’s train our students to automatically ask themselves these questions when they’re consuming media:

Who’s the sender?

What’s their intent?

Who’s profiting?

Let’s help students reflect on their relationship with the media:


Perhaps by critically consuming the thousands of media messages we receive daily, we can make smarter decisions about our health and be well.

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