Our generation spends a third of our day using digital media — and that’s not including being online for homework. That’s a lot of time to be engaging with friends, reading news, binging shows.
If we’re not careful, our consumption patterns can lead us astray — algorithms reinforce convictions we already have, and we all know how the internet rewards drama and spectacle. How can we intentionally cultivate media habits that actually make us better people? How can we use our phones to develop our critical thinking, emotional balance, and our overall health?
Common Sense Media is a nonprofit dedicated to studying the ways we engage online, and they indicate media literacy is about developing critical thinking skills, recognizing diverse points of view, understanding the various roles different types of media play in our culture, considering the author's intent, and more — all good habits to bring to our time online.
Here are three strategies for developing these habits to strengthen our media literacy.
Consume diverse types of media
Being able to understand, consume, and appreciate various types of media requires us to consume diverse forms of media. The more varied our diet of media and content, so to speak, the better we’ll be able to adopt and apply certain reading and critical thinking skills.
We might relate it to exercise. The more we’re incorporating workouts that strengthen various muscles of our body — our biceps, triceps, abs, etc. — the stronger we’ll become at working out in general. Increased arm strength will help us build stronger shoulders and vice versa.
Similarly, consuming different types of media can help us “work out” our thinking in various ways. One way of doing this is to read literature — be that a novel, a chapbook of poems, or a collection of short stories. Literature requires a much deeper and more engaged process of reflection and thinking. It helps us ask deep questions about the work and life itself: What is the author’s intent? Why are certain characters behaving the way they are? What is not being said? How is ambiguity stretching my understanding of human nature? How might this story relate to my own personal experiences and life?
This is also true for other forms of media, such as film, documentaries, essays, scholarly articles, personal memoirs, and so on. If we’re only consuming a steady diet of tweets, Facebook posts, and news headlines, we’re simply not thinking deeply — we’re not working out all those other mental “muscles.” And this limits our ability to understand what we’re consuming because we haven’t developed a critical and thoughtful lens.
Track the effects of our media consumption
It’s really important to be aware of how the media we’re consuming is affecting our life, mood, and overall health because we’re often too close to our own experience to see it objectively. We tend to think that our media consumption isn’t as pervasive or, in some cases, harmful as it is.
It might be helpful to download some type of tracking software that can help us identify how much digital media we’re actually consuming. Some popular apps include Digital Wellbeing, Moment, iOS Screen Time, and Freedom — but there are many others. These apps can help us be honest about how much we’re consuming and see if it is actually more than we thought — or even if we’re spending an inordinate amount of time engaging with one type of media over another.
Knowledge is the first step for being able to take action. And taking action is the first step for forming a new and healthy habit. So, while we might not think our media consumption is all that robust in our life, once we begin tracking it, we might be surprised at what we discover.
Aside from the quantity of time spent consuming media, it’s also important to consider how our media consumption is affecting our life and health. We might not consume much media at all, but if the media we do consume is fostering resentment and cynicism then that’s a problem.
Do we notice that we feel more anxious, angry, or fearful after consuming certain types of media? Are we finding a correlation between time spent online and a lack of productivity or neglect of other responsibilities? We can take time at the end of our day to recount the media we’ve consumed and our mood and behavior as a result. Consider jotting notes in a journal, or simply giving regular time for some self-reflection at the end of the day.
Keep in mind this applies to the media we create as well as consume. We might be spending too much time blogging, responding on comment boxes, or sharing social media posts. Such media production might be fostering unhealthy emotions and behaviors (i.e. angrily writing up rude rebuttals, sharing photos for a false sense of approval, fostering fear and suspicion by crafting conspiratorial content, etc.).
We don’t have to make this an exact science but it’s worth taking stock of our media consumption habits at the end of our day (or every few days) and noting our mood and behavior. This can help us develop more moderation, awareness, and intentionality when it comes to media — or, in other words, better literacy.
Balance cynicism with credulity
This tip is probably most relevant to news and social media. In the age of “fake news,” we can find ourselves easily led to one of two poles. On one side are those who view all media as inherently untrustworthy — something to completely disregard and avoid. On the other side are those who react uncritically to everything they read, no matter how sensational, far-fetched, or poorly supported.
It’s important to have a measured approach to what we consume. Yes, there may be times when we need to outright reject something, or when we feel that what we’re reading is true and requires immediate action. But, by and large, much of what we are reading dwells in gray areas.
When it comes to news stories or social media posts, there are often certain facts being downplayed or biases being expressed — no matter the publication or source. And while this doesn’t mean we should therefore reject it (this would be an overly cynical approach), keeping these biases in mind can help us be a bit more reflective with respect to how much weight we’re giving to what we’re reading.
By taking the time to ask ourselves certain questions, we can better understand the media we consume. Am I reading a news article or social media post that is dripping with sensational or overly emotional language? Might the author have a hidden agenda that is causing them to simplify their own or another’s position? Am I reading this through the lens of my own bias, based on what I want to believe or not believe?
This is by no means easy, but in trying to remain moderate with our response (which doesn’t mean we still cannot have an opinion about the media we’re consuming) we can get better at reflectively responding — as opposed to unconsciously reacting.
By diversifying our media consumption, taking time to evaluate how the media we’re consuming (and producing) is affecting us, and doing our best to toe the line between cynicism and credulity, we can strengthen our media literacy in these days of hyper-media saturation.