Content Map Terms

Making Sense of Media Messages: Media and Digital Literacy


Mom and teen son on couch with laptop computer


Your child interacts with media every day. Some of it might inform or entertain her, and some will try to sell her things or ideas. It can be overwhelming for your child – and you! But you can help your child learn to understand and question media messages.

Media literacy: the basics

Media literacy is about having the skills to access, understand, question, critically analyze, evaluate and create media, such as videos, television shows, photographs, print and online content.

Children and teenagers who are media literate are more aware of the way media content is made, where it comes from and what it is trying to do. They’re more confident about voicing their own opinions about media. They’re also safer online and less likely to be manipulated by the media.

Basic media literacy involves understanding and making judgments about:

  • content
  • censorship
  • bias
  • advertising
  • effects of media ownership on the way information is presented
  • online safety

Young people aren’t always digitally literate, even though they might be technology-savvy from a young age. They might know how to use remote controls and mobile phones, search the internet, create their own blog or upload videos to YouTube. But just as they need to learn to speak, read and write the language of media, they also need to learn how to read and analyse digital messages.

To do this, your child needs:

Technical literacy
This means knowing how to use computers, web browsers, software programs and applications, and technical language. It also means understanding how computers and the internet work. For example, it’s important to understand that the internet is global, or that when you post text, images or video, there’s no guarantee this content can be removed.

Content literacy
This includes understanding how a search engine, such as Google, ranks search results, and being able to work out who has created a website – that is, the difference between .com, .gov and .org sites. Working out whether the information is based on expert or amateur opinion, and whether information is from a reliable source, is also important. So is the ability to spot marketing, advertising and scams on the web.

Communication literacy
This is knowing the difference between types of communication on the internet, including social networking, online chat and chat rooms, multiplayer games, blogs and discussion forums. These all have their own formal and informal rules.

Creative and visual literacy
This is being able to create and upload online content, understand how online visual content is edited and constructed, and understand copyright.

Helping your child become media and digitally literate

Becoming media and digitally literate yourself is a great start to the process. Getting familiar with media in general, and how different media are made, will help you guide your child.

It’s also a good idea to keep up to date with the latest social media, because new social media are constantly being invented.

By encouraging your child to question what she watches and reads in the media, you can help her sort out facts from opinion, identify advertising and product placement, understand bias, be aware of the misuse of statistics, make judgments about quality and identify media scams. She should also be aware that she doesn’t have to just accept everything she comes across in the media as “fact” or “truth”.

You might like to encourage your child to ask himself questions about media content. For example:

  • Is this newspaper article a report or an opinion column?
  • Who paid for this magazine page about this new product?
  • What sources of information did the author use in putting this piece together?
  • What is the author’s intention?
  • Whose voice is missing?

The media and a lot of internet content is owned, and media ownership influences published content and points of view.

All media content is edited and constructed. In other words, some things have been included and other bits have been left out. Even the news (which you might think of as the “facts”) reflects the way editors, directors, producers and media owners see the world – after all, some things make it on to the news and some don’t.

You and your child could look at different news programs to check out the differences in the way they report things. Or you could ask your child why she thinks different media content – on the TV or internet, or in magazines and newspapers and so on – uses certain images, music and words, and what messages these help to convey.

It can also be helpful to model your own media and digital literacy for your child. Discuss your choices with him – for example, why you choose certain TV programs or websites, or how you respond to advertising. This will give you the chance to reinforce your family’s values and beliefs while teaching your child to question what he hears and sees in the media.

Talking with your child about what advertising is and what it’s trying to do can help your child learn the difference between advertising messages and other media messages that are designed to entertain, inform or educate.

The internet can bring the best and worst information that’s out there into your home. Internet access is getting easier for children through phones and tablets, so you and your child need to be able to sort the good from the bad. The following ideas might help:

  • Search the internet together. You might use a few search engines, try different search words, and talk about which websites contain the best or most useful information and why. Also encourage your child to look beyond the first link in search results.
  • Talk about the different kind of websites. Does the web address end in .com, .org or .gov? Look into what these mean together.
  • Encourage your child to be careful about what she clicks. Many sites contain “pop-ups” or animated advertising that entice you to “click here” by promising free products or money. These are generally scams and can contain computer viruses. 

Tip: We all take different meanings from media messages, depending on our backgrounds, interests and values. We are many audiences, not just one. For example, one person might think something is funny, but somebody else might see it differently.

Media and digital literacy skills are more effective at keeping your child safe online than internet filtering software. You can read more ideas for keeping children safe online in our articles on cybercitizenship and internet safety.

© Raising Children Network Limited, reproduced with permission.

Resources & Links:

Media Smarts: Media Issues  
Media Smarts: Digital and Media Literacy Fundamentals

Last Updated: November 30, 2014