Watertown-based group advocates teaching children media literacy
A Watertown-based nonprofit group seeks to ensure students know the messages they receive from television, video games and social media, and how they impact their lives.
Media Literacy Now was started by Erin McNeill who first became aware of the impact of media on children in 2011.
“What really pushed me to do this was that I could see what was happening to my own children and how much they were influenced by the messages they received: mainly in the days of television, then over time, video games and now it’s become more extreme – wall-to-wall messaging,” McNeill said. “The messaging tells kids who they are and what they should be. parents too, but multi-million dollar corporations influence children.
McNeill knows media having worked in the industry, including coverage politics and how it’s made in the USA while working for Congress Quarterly.
“I was a journalist and I could see that people really didn’t understand how essential quality journalism is to maintaining democracy,” McNeill said. “And I saw that there was a place where I could contribute to finding solutions to the problem. Media literacy is part of the solution.
She spoke to her child’s fifth grade teacher at Belmont Schools about teaching media literacy.
“We talked about the possibility of teaching media literacy in his class. She was very excited about it. She found a program online and did a unit for kids at the end of the year on advertising,” McNeill said.
She added, “Sometimes it’s not even called media literacy. In one of my son’s science classes, they were looking at advertising in psychology class. Media education is integrated into the science curriculum.
Although individual teachers might be interested, McNeill found that to make serious change she needed to work at the state level. McNeill wanted K-12 education to include media literacy, as well as the other lessons students receive. In 2011, she advocated for media literacy in the Massachusetts state legislature and helped pass the bill requiring it that year.
Two years later, she founded Media Literacy Now to take what was learned in the Bay State to other states. The organization took advantage of the power of the internet and social media to build momentum.
“We managed to become this national force that changes politics, with a small number of people and a fairly small budget. A good number of volunteers can reach people across the continent via the internet, social media, via our website,” McNeill said. “It’s been a really good way to spread the word, find advocates and build a movement.”
There are now chapters in 15 states across the country that have introduced more than 140 media literacy-related bills and passed 18 pieces of legislation. Every state is different, she said, and it takes patience and continuous work to get a bill passed.
“It could have been discouraging. People say it takes 10 years to pass a bill in Massachusetts, which is pretty much true,” McNeill said.
Media Literacy Now produces an annual report on States’ performance in media literacy. There is a wide range of media literacy, depending on the state.
“Many do nothing. There are 14 states that have some sort of policy. Massachusetts is an emerging country,” McNeill said. “The new ranking puts Illinois at the top. They need media literacy to be taught. For us, this is a big step. That means it affects children. It’s still limited – only in high school.
The media landscape kids have only grown more complicated since Media Literacy Now was founded.
“It has changed so much over time. We used to say, keep the TV in a public place, not in your kids’ bedroom,” McNeill said, “It almost seems quaint today. They have iPhones, iPads in their room. As soon as you let them off your site, they can be on the computer. Even sitting in front of you, they scroll on their phones.