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Assistant professor examines the links between media literacy and youth smoking attitudes

Monday, October 21, 2013

LAWRENCE — The known risks of smoking and other types of tobacco usage have yet to dissuade all youth from picking up the habit.

Now, a University of Kansas professor has co-authored a pair of studies examining whether media literacy training can help kids understand the tobacco industry's messages targeted at young people and use that information in their decision making.

Yvonnes Chen, assistant professor of journalism at the University of Kansas, and colleagues conducted two studies with children of low-income families in southwestern Virginia, an area with long cultural and economic ties to the tobacco industry. One study, measuring the effectiveness of a media literacy program for tobacco prevention targeting early adolescents, was published in the American Journal of Health Promotion. A second, comparing what young people who took a media literacy course compared to a control group that did not, was published in the Journal of Children and Media.

“One thing that really drives us in exploring this topic is that we really care about adolescents’ health,” Chen said. “Media literacy is about an individual’s ability to access, analyze and evaluate a media message. Innately we were curious if this type of intervention might be effective for children who grew up in a state where tobacco is prevalent and is the cultural norm.”

Chen co-authored the studies with Christine Kaestle, Paul Estabrooks, Jamie Zoellner and Brandon Bigby of Virginia Tech University. The studies were funded by the Virginia Healthy Youth Foundation.

To evaluate the media literacy intervention, Chen and colleagues worked with children ages 8-14 at several YMCAs in southwestern Virginia. The children took part in 5 one-hour sessions about media literacy and were tested before and after taking the course. The researchers found mixed results among the children. While some areas of their media literacy improved, others did not and, perhaps more significantly, they found children younger than 10 said they were still likely to begin smoking later in life.

“Surprisingly children under 10 said they were likely to smoke,” Chen said. “But we don’t know exactly why. Given that Virginia is the birthplace of the American tobacco industry, I think there is room to see if media literacy can help tell why they feel this way.”

The researchers measured the adolescents in four areas: General media literacy, tobacco-specific media literacy, future expectations about smoking and attitudes and beliefs about smoking. Youths who took part in the intervention improved their general media literacy skills greatly. Authors and audiences, one of three measurements of tobacco-specific media literacy, was the only one to show significant improvement for kids who took part in the intervention versus those in the control group.

As part of their analysis of how children acquire media literacy, Chen and colleagues explored several themes as they relate to media messages from the tobacco industry. The young people were very aware of the tools of persuasion and how the tobacco industry used them to try and attract young people to their products. Their views on smoking did not change, as they all reported they knew it was bad for them. However, their distrust of the industry did grow after taking the intervention. Older participants especially proved adept at media messages overall omitted health information and attempted to filter reality to fit their narrative.

The media literacy intervention also included several lessons in media production and children across focus groups voiced enthusiasm for learning how to construct their own messages, saying they were both interested in studying the topic further and sharing what they had learned overall with their families.

Chen said she hopes to continue her research in media literacy and health among adolescents. She plans to use media literacy interventions and study whether it can make a difference in how young people view the fast food industry and what they know about nutrition and dietary choices. Making young people more literate and aware of the messages they consume, how they are constructed and who they are coming from has the potential to help young people both make better decisions regarding their health and make them more informed citizens.

“Media literacy can get kids interested in talking about tobacco. I think we should capitalize on that opportunity,” Chen said. “You can empower young people to talk back to the industry and be savvy in understanding what these industries are trying to persuade them.”