Media literacy1 is a concept related to an awareness of the impact of media messages on our conscious and unconscious choices. Decades of research have show that media education produces healthier, more resilient youth. Children who understand that the media are not real are less likely to adopt unhealthy attitudes or behaviors that are depicted in the media. (Huston, Donnerstein, Fairchild, et al, 1992: Singer, Zuckerman & Singer, 1980; Dorr, Graves & Phelps, 1980).
Studies of media literacy programs have been shown to be effective in increasing children’s critical viewing skills of advertising (Roberts, Christenson, Gibson, Moser & Goldberg, 1980; Feshbach, Feshbach & Cohen, 1982). Slater, et. al. (1996) found that classes about resistance to advertisers’ persuasive appeals have both short and long term effects. Exposure to such classes predicts cognitive resistance and counter-arguing of persuasive beer advertisements months and years after completion of the class (1996). Media literacy education has also been found to be effective for mitigating violence (Huesman, et al.1983). Many other countries, including Canada, Great Britain, Australia, and several Latin American nations have successfully incorporated media education into school curricula (Brown, 1991).
One study directly relating media literacy and alcohol advertising found a change in children’s intention to drink alcohol after a media education program (Austin & Johnson, 1997). Results showed that 3rd graders given media literacy training around alcohol ads showed significant attitudinal changes. They were less likely to rate alcohol ads positively, were less attracted to alcohol promotional material, and showed greater disdain for alcohol commercials. Researchers looking at 9th and 12th graders found that “the potential risk of frequent exposure to persuasive alcohol portrayals via late-night talk shows, sports, music videos, and prime-time television for underage drinking is moderated by parental reinforcement and counter-reinforcement of messages” (Austin, Pinkleton & Fujioka, 2000). This research suggests that giving parents and students the media literacy skills to “talk back” to television reduces underage drinking. Recent research has provided further empirical support for the benefit of media literacy education by demonstrating that such education programs predicted alcohol use at a two-year follow-up (Epstein, et al 2007).
If one understands how advertising works to create expectancies driving additive behavior, its easy to understand why media literacy education is an effective prevention tool. Using alcohol marketing as an example illuminates this point. Much of popular media and advertising is directed towards creating and reinforcing positive beliefs about drinking. American alcohol companies reported $1.75 Billion in advertising on traditional media (TV, radio, print, outdoor) buys in 2005 (Adams Beverage Group, 2006). If non-traditional media is included (events, promotions, internet, paraphernalia) it is estimated that this figures triples (Advertising Age Data Center, n.d.). The impact of alcohol advertising on youth can be seen in the correlation between advertising expenditures and youth alcohol consumption. Snyder, et al. (2006) reported that greater exposure to alcohol advertising contributes to an increase in drinking among underage youth. Specifically, for each additional ad a young person saw (above the monthly youth average of 23), he or she drank 1% more. For each additional dollar per capita spent on alcohol advertising in a local market (above the national average of $6.80 per capita), young people drank 3% more.
Goldman (n.d.), citing Dunn and Goldman (1998), wrote on the Leadership to Keep Children Alcohol Free website:
Children begin to acquire alcohol expectancies at a very young age (perhaps as young as 3 or 4 years old). In early childhood, alcohol expectancies tend to be negative (e.g., alcohol makes one sick, mean, and argumentative). However, by fifth and sixth grade, these expectancies turn positive, focusing on the arousing and positive effects of alcohol use (e.g., alcohol makes one social, happy, and sexy). Thus, alcohol expectancies are largely positive by the time experimentation with alcohol begins.
It is commonly held that the reason children move from having negative to positive alcohol expectancies is in large part due to alcohol advertising. Chen and Grube (2001) report that 5th through 11th grade students who are exposed to and enjoy alcohol advertisements have more favorable beliefs about drinking and say they are more likely to drink in the future and consume more alcohol.
Because marketing of addictive and destructive behaviors to children is pervasive in our society, it’s imperative that serious prevention programs include media literacy education.
1Media literacy is the ability to “read” television and mass media. Media literacy education teaches people to ACCESS, ANALYZE, EVALUATE, and PRODUCE media. Many studies suggest that such education can produce less vulnerable children and adolescents. National PTA’s, Teachers’ professional organizations, substance abuse prevention programs and the President have all endorsed media literacy. Children who understand the motivations and production techniques of media are less likely to adopt the destructive attitudes and behaviors that are depicted in the media. Media education represents a new and exciting approach to protecting children and adolescents from the unhealthy effects of media-an approach which is not dependent on Hollywood’s or Madison Avenue’s willingness to accept responsibility for its programming and advertising.
Adams Beverage Group (2006). Adams Liquor Handbook. Palm Springs, CA
Advertising Age Data Center (n.d.). Fact Pack 2005. The Ad Age Group. New York, NY. Posted on adage.com/datacenter
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Austin, E.W., Pinkleton, B.E., Fujioka, Y. (2000) The Role of Interpretation Processes and Parental Discussion in the Media’s Effects on Adolescents’ Use of Alcohol. Pediatrics, 105 (2), 343-349.
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Chen, M.J., Grube, J.W. (2001). TV beer and soft drink advertising: What young people like and what effects? Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Research Society on Alcoholism, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
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Dunn, M.E., & Goldman, M.S. (1998). Age and drinking related differences in the memory organization of alcohol expectancies in 3rd-, 6th-, 9th-, and 12th-grade children. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 66, 579-585.
Epstein, J.A., Zhou, X.K., Bang, H. & Botvin, G.J. (2007). Do competence skills moderate the impact of social influences to drink and perceived social benefits of drinking on alcohol use among inner-city adolescents? Prevention Science, 8(1), 65-73.
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Snyder, L.B., Milici, F.F., Slater, M., Sun, H. and Strizhakova, Y. (2006). Effects of Alcohol Advertising Exposure on Drinking Among Youth. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 160, 18-24.