Health Media Literacy is a 21st Century Essential Skill

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Optimal health is not just the absence of illness or disease; it is a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being. I can’t think of anything more challenging right now, as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on.  While we may be locked down temporarily, we must not lock ourselves in to the status quo of formalized schooling—including what constitutes core curriculum. Disparate times call for disparate measures, so to speak.

Navigating the current pandemic requires that young people acquire an increasingly complex set of skills, such as understanding statistical data, evaluating the credibility and truthfulness of health information, analyzing the risks and benefits of a particular treatment or vaccine, and interpreting test results. An essential skill in 2021 is health media literacy.

What is health media literacy?

Health media literacy (HML) is the enactment of media literacy within the context of health. It focuses on how the understanding and enactment of health and health-related behaviors are influenced by, enacted through, and shaped by the rapidly changing technologically mediated environments in which humans live. HML requires accessing and understanding information, analyzing and evaluating its credibility and relevance, and actively applying new knowledge to enact healthy behaviors. Broadly conceived, HML implies the creation of healthy media environments for one’s own benefit and for the benefit of society. [HML has also been referenced internationally as media health literacy (MHL) and critical media health literacy (CMHL). The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) also refers to health literacy within the broad constellation of information and media literacy.]

Cultivating health media literacy skills offers young people an ecological approach to health media, positioning it as a complex message system that imposes on human beings certain ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving. Historically, media technologies have served as powerful communication channels to persuade the public in ways that can improve health and also to thwart it. Public health communication has morphed into an era of transmedia where oral, print, broadcast, and digital media converge. Mobile devices, including cell phones, and social media not only provide a public gateway for circulating health information, they also serve as vehicles for health research by supplying portals for crowdsourced data that are fed back to the public. The use of modern media technologies to individually and collectively support positive health behaviors is groundbreaking. At the same time, our user-centered technologies result in more data than we know how to handle. The Web is a vast wilderness where prestigious research institutions coexist with highly commercial entities. Despite providing essentially free access to vast amounts of information, the Internet also poses a major challenge to the quality and reliability of health information. And we have only hit the tip of the iceberg with regards to the implications and impact on data privacy.

Pre/Post- Pandemic Perils

Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic there existed systemic and widespread stumbling blocks to achieving optimal health. Humans of all ages are steeped in a post-digital information environment that is highly manipulated, decontextualized, and often contradictory. Health information is produced and distributed by many different and often competing sources, including government(s), food and drug industries, corporate marketers, and social media influencers. The current pandemic has taken center stage as the main threat to public health currently. When it reaches endemic status (post-vaccine), the world will still be left with equally dangerous yet seemingly benign threats to public health: Food insecurity and also food marketing to children remain global public health threats. The emergence of an unhealthy commodities industry in many countries and their financial and institutional relations with public health researchers, NGOs, and national and international health agencies exacerbate an already heated conflict between global health and the profit motives of corporations. And food (in)security is merely one facet of global health.

By no means am I a fear-mongering anti-capitalist. Neither do I have a political agenda here. My point is simply this: By placing singular responsibility for health on the individual, we fail to hold accountable those institutional structures that disable individual agency and impede our ability to enact pro-health behaviors. While HML is a set of individual skills, it cannot be accomplished without societal structures that allow individuals to conscientiously exercise their agency. Human behavior is complex and grounded in cognition, skills, motivation, intentions, and demographic factors, among others. Behavioral change is not easy to measure. And research that focuses exclusively on individual behaviors while ignorant of systemic forces is incomplete.

Teens are at added risk for health media illiteracy, as they are less likely to rely on primary (scientific) sources and more likely to rely on the Internet, social media, family, or friends for health information. We need health media literacy as an intentional, systemic, and systematic curriculum and pedagogy in our nation’s P-16 educational system. If you are an educator, you can learn more about this in Healthy Teens, Healthy Schools (2015). You can also request virtual or in-person professional development from Project Literacy Among Youth (PLAY). Project Look Sharp also has reputable resources and curriculum guides that address the full spectrum of health-related topics.

If you are a teen seeking to increase your level of health media literacy, here is a good place to start.

If you are a parent and want to increase your level of health media literacy, here is a good place to start.


Dr. Vanessa E. Greenwood is full professor in the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University in New Jersey, USA and director of the COMM+MEDIA Research Collaboratory.

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