Informal Education

A Brief Glimpse of How We Learn from Entertainment... and How Media Literacy Can Help!

Much has been written about informal learning that occurs when audiences, especially children, interact with video games, films and other entertainment material.  Since the first cathode ray tubes brought the flickering blue light of television into the majorityof American homes in the 1950s, parent, teacher, religious and other advocacy groups have bemoaned the possible negative effects of graphically violent or overtly sexual entertainment programming on children. These concerns have risen dramatically in the digital age, in which hand-held devices, interactive and massive online gaming and 24-hour media have made it possible for children to spend a large majority of their days with faces glued to one screen or another. 

            Historically, concerned groups have used a variety of methods to encourage change in entertainment products, including boycotting and exerting pressure on the government to regulate entertainment industry content.  However, sensitive issues such as violence or sexuality onscreen are completely subjective.   As one researcher points out: “… [violent depictions] are elastic and subjective concepts… most of those who think that ‘media violence’ is bad for kids acknowledge that they don’t mean to include televised versions of Shakespeare, Sophocles, or Saving Private Ryan.  Context counts for everything in art and entertainment:  how is violence presented; what are the consequences; what are the ambiguities in story?  There is no way that a censorship law or a simplistic letter-or-number rating system can make these judgments.”         

            Critics of regulating violent content warn that danger of censorship looms with any discussion of modifying the artistic output of the creative community.  They place responsibility for monitoring potentially harmful entertainment content on parents and educators.  Although advocacy groups have fought for mediating parental controls, such as the V-chip and explicit media ratings, there remains a fundamental disconnect between proponents of absolute free expression on one side and forces which seek a modifying tone to the images saturating our world on the other.

Media Literacy

            Some educators have looked to the field of media literacy to help build understanding around issues surrounding children and media  and as a method to avoid possible censorship.  Teaching viewers to analyze the manipulative and commercial implications of media is one of the main tenets of media literacy.  Much as we seek to educate about the negative aspects of overeating or junk food, so media literacy advocates seek to help children cultivate healthy viewing habits and critical analysis of media. Traditionally, literacy has applied specifically to reading and writing, but the concept has come to involve a wide variety of contexts in which meaning creation can occur.  Proponents of media literacy seek to expand the concept of literacy to all forms of media.

Theoretical Approaches to Media Literacy

            Media literacy teaching in the United States often falls into one of two theoretical camps: a critical or cultural-studies based perspective, and an intervention-oriented, media effects-based approach.  The intervention-based group views successful media literacy instruction as a mitigating force between a negative media influence on audience thoughts, attitudes and behaviors.  The critical/cultural perspective is concerned that any such attempts to inoculate young people from what they see as an entirely pleasant experience – consuming media – could ultimately backfire, as conversations based on assumptions of negativity and harm can shut down open discussions with young people.  This group posits that enjoyment of popular media should not be held as inferior by authority figures and that audiences should not be seen as needing protection from it.  Rather, media can be explored as texts to open discussions of what young people experience in their lives.  This perspective holds that successful media literacy happens in an interactive dialogue during which students’ own views about the topic can be explored.  Duran, Yousman, Walsh and Longshore (2008) speak for a holistic approach, wherein both theories are presented in a contextual class on media motives, effects and analysis to enable students to think critically about the “who, what, when, where, how and why” of media.               

            Still, consensus is beginning to form among media literacy educators regarding approaches for K-12 students, and agreement among practitioners for utilizing a constructivist, nonhierarchical and interdisciplinary approach. The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) developed a list of principles associated with accessing, analyzing, evaluating, and communicating media.  Key concepts include:  

  • active inquiry and critical thinking about media messages; 
  • expanding the definition of literacy to include all forms of media; 
  • exploring the political, ideological and business nature of mass media production; 
  • and the notion that people construct their own reality about media given their individual frames of reference.  

            Media products come fully constructed with attitudes, interpretations and conclusions already built in, often making it the media, rather than the viewer, who is constructing reality.  As global technology rapidly diffuses new ideas, values, behavior patterns and social practices, a “globally distributed consciousness” can be fostered.

            And yet, viewing media remains a highly subjective experience.  Individual viewers bring their own frames of reference, needs, beliefs, anxieties, racial and sexual attitudes, family and cultural backgrounds, even the “pleasures and troubles of the day” to their media viewing experience.  Each individual’s unique attention processes select what is actually observed, what information is extracted, and what meaning they will take away.  It is the role of media literacy education to help students negotiate meaning.  Effective media teachers, therefore, must be open to the ways in which students have individually experienced the text with which they are dealing.


            Further, media literacy involves an awareness of the ideological implications and value systems of media texts.  All media products are advertising in some sense, for themselves, but also for values or ways of life.  The ideological messages contained in, for example, a typical Hollywood television narrative, are almost invisible to North Americans but would be much more apparent to people in developing countries.  Typical mainstream North American media convey a number of explicit and implicit ideological messages, which can include some or all of the following:  the nature of “the good life” and the role of affluence in it, the virtues of consumerism, the role of women, the acceptance of authority, and unquestioning patriotism. Thus, media literacy includes decoding techniques in order to uncover these ideological messages and value systems.  Just as media influence audiences in many ways – cognitively, attitudinally, emotionally, behaviorally -- increasing one’s media literacy requires development along several different dimensions.  These dimensions are cognitive, emotional, aesthetic and moral. 


Excerpted from my doctoral thesis: 

Valenti, Laurie Trotta;  Media Literacy for Film and Media Students: Teaching Onscreen Violence to Future Entertainment Industry Professionals (2014) Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ

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