Will ‘Media Literacy’ classes help protect school children? One state thinks so

National/World

(NEXSTAR) – A lawmaker’s face-palm-worthy misunderstanding of a popular social media term went viral earlier this month—providing fodder for online comedians and sending teens scrambling to clear out their finstas before their parents learned about their “fake” Instagram accounts.

The awkward exchange between Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Facebook’s head of security ironically occurred during a hearing on the potential dangers of social media, bringing to light a generational disconnect regarding the rapidly changing forms of media children are exposed to every day.

It’s that disconnect, according to Ashley Hodges, LCSW of Wellington Counseling Group, that allows children to go online with “little to no skills or strategies” to navigate and decipher the information they are absorbing. Hodges and others, such as attorney Maaria Mozaffar, are hopeful a new media literacy law recently passed in Illinois will help change that reality.

“We are now looking at a situation where students from the ages of 3 to 18 are consuming loads of information,” Mozaffar said. “And they’re getting information, not from family and friends and typical news outlets, which was true maybe 20, 30 years ago, even 15 or so, right? Now they’re getting information from what they use the most, which is the phone or the tablet.”

Mozaffar drafted the legislation behind the new law, which will require all Illinois public high schools to incorporate a media literacy curriculum beginning next school year.  

“Media literacy is all-encompassing of all media that we consume,” Mozaffar said.

She noted that the definition includes everything from digital news to television advertisements to Instagram filters and everything in between.

According to Mozaffar, the curriculum will help students objectively analyze and evaluate media messages at a time when information “is literally available to them in a second’s notice.”

“It’s a new domain that a new generation is learning how to use,” she said. “And without guidance, we have so many different impacts that could happen, which may steer them in the wrong direction. So they, I think, need to be given all the tools and the resources that they can use to make this the most impactful for them.”

In her clinical practice working with children, Hodges has seen first-hand the negative impact the media can have on children who do not have the tools are resources they need.

“I do believe social media can be harmful to kids, specifically girls,” she said.

Hodges said she continues to see an increase in anxiety, depression, loneliness, and even lack of sleep in children who use social media regularly; however, she said social media can also be a positive experience with proper parameters and education.

While Illinois is the first state to require such education, Mozaffar, and other advocates want to see it go further.

“I think that legislators are starting to recognize that the most important place to change society and the way we consume information is at the of schools because that’s where kids are gathering the most information and meeting new people,” Mozaffar said.” So I think it’s going to be fascinating. And I hope that around the country, people realize how important it is for them to learn media literacy.”

Not all Illinois lawmakers are on board with the new curriculum. Rep. Adam Niemerg was quote by multiple media outlets calling it “anti-trump, anti-conservative” reactionary legislation and an attempt by the left “to get into our school systems at a young age and teach them the means of mainstream media.”

Mozaffar said she wouldn’t respond to such comments because “I think it politicizes the issue of education and I’m not going to perpetuate the issue of education in a political manner. I think our kids deserve better than that.”

She encouraged parents who are worried about the new curriculum to get involved.

“Look at the curriculum,” she said. “Base your concerns and your arguments on facts, have a role in developing the curriculum, talk to the professors, or get information on who’s creating the curriculum and say that you want some space there to contribute.”

Hodges added that parents should educate themselves on what media, especially social media, looks like to a teenager. She encouraged parents to ask questions such as “what do you think about that?” or “do you think that’s real?”

“Keep an open dialogue,” she said.

According to Hodges, teens and parents should know it is ok to take a break from the media when needed. She suggested implementing a “screen-free” hour for the entire household. Use the time to reconnect as a family, she said.

To learn more about media literacy, visit medialiteracynow.org.

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