Critical Thinking and Media Literacy in Youth Work

13 July 2021

The author of the cover picture is Margaret Pütsepp, a young Estonian artist

We live in the ‘information age, and our young people are surrounded by information coming from all sorts of directions and wrapped in all types of packaging. Every day a young person spends more than a third of their free time consuming, interacting with, and producing media – an important sign when it comes to thinking about what young people’s priorities are today. At this stage in life, their minds demand maximum social interaction – a phycological requirement of young age.

It is the time when people tend to have the greatest number of friends and close connections. It is the time of transition from high school to college, which brings with it a dramatic expansion of social circles. It is also the time when people are at their most vulnerable – seeking attention, acceptance, and approval of thoughts and actions. The search for where we belong is a process that can lead to very wrong places. Often unable to deal with their own feelings, young people have an even harder time when exposed to hate speech, mocking, cyberbullying, and radical/extremist content. Therefore, it is very important that young people have certain skills and techniques to understand that what they are seeing is not necessarily what they should believe in and that they need to be a little more disciplined in sorting out the information they receive and what they take from it.

Two of those skills are critical thinking and media literacy – and the two are very closely intertwined. Let’s look at what each of them is, how they can impact young people’s lives, and how youth workers can help develop these skills inside and outside the classroom.


Critical thinking in perceiving media

So, once critical thinking was established as “an ability to examine and analyze information and ideas in order to understand and assess their values and assumptions, rather than simply taking propositions at face value” (UNESCO, 2013), how would you say it connects to our understanding of media today? There is more than one direct answer. In fact, there are five ways we can look at it, according to the NW Center for Excellence in Media Literacy (College of Education, University of Washington):

  1. All media are carefully wrapped packages
    As carefully wrapped packages, the messages are ‘wrapped’ with enormous effort and expense, even though they appear quite natural to the audience. Media texts are the product of careful manipulation of constructive elements, both on an obvious and a subtle level. On an obvious level, constructions such as drawings, colours, and headlines may be used. But on a subtle level, constructions such as appeals (generalization appeal or appeal to emotion) may be used. Young people need to develop the skills of looking beneath the surface of media messages to see how they are constructed.
  2. Media construct versions of reality
    Audiences tend to accept media texts as natural versions of events and ideas when, in fact, they are only representations of events and ideas. The reality we see in media texts is a constructed reality built for us by the people who made the media text. Young people need to develop skills in interpreting texts so that they can tell the difference between reality and textual versions of reality.
  3. Media are interpreted through individual lenses
    Audiences interact with media texts in their own individual ways. Some audiences accept some messages totally at face value. Other audiences may reject the same text, disagree with its message, or find it objectionable. Yet other audiences, not certain if they have embraced or rejected the text, will try to come to terms with it by negotiating. Audiences who negotiate with a text might ask questions, seek out other people’s opinions or try several interpretations or reactions the same way we try on new clothes—to see how they suit us. Young people need to be open to multiple interpretations of texts and aware that a reaction to a text is a product of both the text itself and all that the audience brings to the text in terms of their accumulated life experience.
  4. Media are about money
    Modern media are expensive to produce. Producers need to make back their investment by marketing their products to audiences.
    One of the main purposes of the media is to promote consumerism. While we enjoy many of the products of media, such as magazines, we need to be aware that some media texts are created to deliver an audience to advertisers rather than to deliver texts to audiences. Others may use consumerism as a secondary motive.
    With increasing regularity, four or five massive communications conglomerates dominate media production facilities such as newspaper/book/magazine publishers and TV/film production and distribution companies. Young people need to be aware of the implications of media’s commercial agenda and how ‘convergence’ affects media and their content.
  5. Media promote agenda
    The very fact that some people object to some media texts is proof that those texts contain value messages. Most media texts are targeted to an audience that can be identified by their values or ideology (belief system). Detecting the ideological and values agenda of media texts is an important skill in media analysis.

Looking at the five ideas described above, one can be quite perplexed at how difficult it may be for a young person to grasp these concepts and find their own way to deal with the challenges they present. Therefore, the skill that comes to the fore is media literacy, or rather media and information literacy, as the experts explain today (UNESCO, p.27).

Defining Media and Information Literacy

“We live in a world of almost total mediation,” states renowned British writer and media education researcher David Buckingham (2018). “New challenges have emerged, for example, in relation to fake news, online abuse, and threats to privacy, while older concerns – for example, about propaganda, pornography, and media’ addiction’ – have taken on new forms. The global media environment is now dominated by a very small number of near-monopoly providers, like Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, who control the most widely used media platforms and services, and yet whose power is much less overt and visible than the power of older ‘mass media’ corporations. We all need to think critically about how media work, how they represent the world and how they are produced and used”.

In the scope of today’s technology-saturated reality, media literacy, as the concept with roots in media and civic studies, is not sufficient. Being contributors to the information exchange via media, we cannot overstate the importance of the missing part – information literacy, as access to information, the evaluation, creation, and sharing of information and knowledge, using various tools, formats, and channels. Therefore, it is important to emphasize the term Media and Information Literacy (MIL), defined as “a set of competencies that empowers citizens to access, retrieve, understand, evaluate and use, to create as well as share information and media content in all formats, using various tools, in a critical, ethical and effective way, in order to participate and engage in personal, professional and societal activities” (UNESCO).

  • The ultimate goal of MIL is to empower people to exercise their universal rights and fundamental freedoms, such as freedom of opinion and expression, and to use the opportunities available in the most effective, inclusive, ethical, and efficient manner for the benefit of all individuals.

MIL skills are life skills!

A media and information literate person is able to distinguish between reliable sources of information, determine the role of media in culture, and be responsible for their understanding of the influence of mass communication as they move between different media platforms. MIL skills, in particular, are those that are fostered to address societal challenges such as misinformation and disinformation, extremism, cyberbullying, and hate speech on the Internet, as well as cybercrime of various kinds (sextortion, data theft, violation of human rights, etc.).

Critical thinking and media and information literacy both have a combined impact on human behaviour: When a person with a critical mind is exposed to shocking news, they do not jump to conclusions, nor do they react by immediately sharing the news with others before questioning the information given, but rather they seek verification and the logic behind the news. A person with a critical mind is also able to assess the rationale behind the choice of format, timing, and mode of communication. At a time when the media is so influenced and controlled by political agendas, a critical approach to the information we consume helps us to form our own personal opinions and resist attempts to be deceived by questionable sources.


Consequences of being media illiterate

Generally speaking, the biggest problem is that people do not understand what they are looking at. Part of the problem is that they may not understand that they are looking at a piece of information that is designed to get them to carry out bad things or to believe in things that are dangerous, which may lead them to violence. For example, when we talk about the people who decide to become terrorists or extremists, often they listen to the information which they believe to be true. So it is really important that when information comes to them, they understand that they need to interrogate this information closely to make sure that they are not belong told something that may be bad for them or their community.

Alternatively, messages can mislead the young reader to think that they have gained or missed something urging them to commit financially right there and then. In criminal cases, if done particularly well, messages can target the deep emotions and feelings young people tend to hide, driving them to harmful actions. Sad examples of these are sexual perpetrators stalking and harassing their victims to extort money (what is otherwise called sextortion) and online game challenges leading to suicides (read a BBC article about the Blue Whale challenge). You can also find more information and resources about sextortion and cybercrimes from the Participation Resource Pool.


How to be media literate?

Hands down, the responsibility for the security of information in the media lies with both the media source and the recipient. Media should be professional, but more clearly, people should be able to distinguish media products from those of extremists or people telling stories.
Media is important to show the people receiving the information that what they are getting is genuine and that they can tell what professional media is and what is meant to be propaganda. Professional journalists are trained to research each story properly, to use more than one source, to not believe the first person they hear, to check other sources and facts leading up to the story. These are the same criteria young audiences need to look for when they hear or see something.

  • Where does it come from?
  • What source?
  • Is there more than one source?
  • Is there somewhere I can look to get more information?
  • Are the facts accurate?

When they think in this way, young people learn to listen (focus on what is being said – and what is not), analyze (look more closely and separate the main components of the message), evaluate (examine different claims and arguments for validity), explain (consider evidence and claims together), and self-regulate (consider our pre-existing thoughts on the topic and any biases we may have) (Facione, 1990).

It is also important to watch out for and recognize the times when we become victims of cognitive distortions. Cognitive Distortions: What They Are and Why They Happen by Very Verified presents the most common biases – confirmation and familiarity biases – along with a few examples, which are easy to relate to.


Guiding questions to youth workers to develop critical thinking

To guide your practice, you can use a list of questions for your young people to ask when thinking critically about the piece of content at hand:

  1. Questions to the industry: Who is in charge? What do they want of me? Why? What else do they want?
  2. Questions to the product: What kind of text (genre) is this? How is the message constructed?
  3. Questions to the audience: Who is this intended for? What assumptions does the test make about the audience? Who am I supposed to be in relation to this text?
  4. Questions to the values: How real is the text? How/Where do I find the meaning? What values are presented? What is the commercial message? What is the ideology of the text? What social/political/artistic messages does the text contain?
  5. Question to predisposition: Do I agree or disagree with the text’s message? Do I argue or negotiate with the message in the text?
  6. Questions to the skills: What skills do I need to apply to this text? How do I deconstruct/reconstruct this text? What new skills does this text demand from me?
  7. Questions to yourself as to the information receiver: What does it all mean to me at the end?
  8. Most importantly, it is crucial to ask, “how do I know that?” each time you arrive at the answer to any of the questions above to avoid assumptions and false conclusions.


How youth work helps to develop critical thinking and media literacy

The impact that a skilled youth worker can have on the development of critical thinking and media literacy in people is hard to underestimate, especially in an informal learning environment. In school, young people are often restricted in the use of their mobile phones, depriving them of the natural environment of tools and technologies available to them to work with information. There may be different views on whether this is good or not, but the fact remains the same: while they are restricted in the use of their devices, they are not in the same environment where they should know how to use skills in real-time.

In this sense, informal youth work environments can be much more flexible, allowing and encouraging the use of regular media, creating more realistic and valuable learning experiences. For example, youth can share examples from their own newsfeed as case studies for discussion or begin creating content directly in class using the tools and apps available to them. In addition, out-of-school environments foster a different personal dynamic, and that often means an easier way to express one’s views and make a valuable contribution.

So you may be wondering now, how can critical thinking be taught in the classroom/outside of it? Here are four general recommendations to stay on the right course (Buckingham, 2018):

  1. We should be asking questions about the various ‘languages’ of media – the forms of grammar or rhetoric they employ.
  2. We should be looking at representation – at how different social groups are represented and how they represent themselves in these online spaces.
  3. We should be looking at the changing institutional structures and economic strategies of the new media companies.
  4. We should be looking critically at how people engage with these media – albeit perhaps more as ‘users’ than ‘audiences.’


Practical examples connecting MIL and youth work

Teaching critical thinking and media literacy has never been easy. But it has also never been more necessary than it is today. To meet this demand, youth workers should make sense of dialogic debate rather than getting students to agree to a predefined position on an issue. They should try to use key concepts to ask difficult questions of the media and also of themselves.

The variety of approaches, such as reflecting on media content and creating new artefacts, can make the learning experience very practical and immersive, while a safe and open space for sharing opinions and thoughts can free young people to think, lift their spirits and make a meaningful contribution.

Here are some practical examples of youth work projects that have tackled the various MIL topics well.

If you’re motivated to get your hands on the best resources for educators, you’ll find an impressive collection of inspiring practices, lesson plans, articles, and digital tools for exploring critical thinking and media literacy in the SALTO’s Participation Pool.

Sources to dig deeper:

  • What would you say might be a connection between you, young people, and ancient Greece? The answer lies in the practice of critical thinking and in the legacy of a very wise Greek philosopher Socrates. In The Socratic Method: What it is and How to Use it in the classroom, you can read the experiences of a Stanford “Socratic” professor (Reich, 2003). Essentially, the article explains the components of the Socratic method and lists nine useful tips for using it in the classroom.


This article was originally published in Estonia’s youth work magazine MIHUS and has been edited for the Participation Resource Pool.


Aleksandra Mangus photo
Aleksandra Mangus

With a Master Degree in Digital Literacy Education (Tampere University, Finland) Aleksandra has been working with UNESCO and other public organisations in Europe. She gives speeches and interactive workshops on MIL and youth engagement, as well as collaborates with SALTO Participation and Information Centre on creating the online Resource Pool for youth workers and educators.

Meelika Hirmo

Meelika Hirmo is a Communications expert who is currently working at Citizen OS promoting digital participation worldwide. The topics of democratic participation, environment, media and information literacy and culture are very close to her heart. She has campaigned for lowering the voting age in Estonia, coordinated international events, led the communication of the international civic movement World Cleanup Day, and is eager to put her skills into practice to create a positive social change.