The average American teenager spends nearly eleven hours a day engaged in social media and accessing digital music media. Much of the existing research about the effects of popular media addresses the negative effects which purportedly range from adverse health outcomes to low educational attainment. Claims that youth-friendly music media can improve learning, reduce risky and problem behavior , and improve health outcomes have been reported in scholarly literature for years; however, debate over these claims continues without conclusive evidence that media literacy education works any better than no media literacy education.

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Renee Hobbs, a leading scholar in the field of media literacy, described seven great debates about what was a movement in the early 2000s. Dr. Hobbs’ manuscript was published at the same time stakeholders were grappling with how to address rising numbers of young people who were disengaged with the traditional school curriculum. Seven questions were at the center of the debate years ago and remain central to most serious discussions about the acceptability and feasibility of media education in schools. Of the seven, I will address the three that relate best to my current research in Baltimore. 1) Does media literacy protect kids?; 2) Does media literacy require student media production activities to be accepted as promoting media literacy?; 3) Should media literacy be weighted toward popular culture?  Stakeholders then and today know that the themes and messages in popular media are controversial and many conflict with pro-health and pro-social goals for young people.  However, the jury is still out, regarding whether eleven hours a day of repeated exposure to the prevailing themes in popular youth music media has any effect on children and adolescents.

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Based on my preliminary data analysis from two recent studies I conducted with two groups of youth in Baltimore, it appears that media literacy education holds much promise for engaging so-called ‘high-risk’ youth in formal and informal learning spaces. Outcomes may include improving school culture and climate, as well as potentially improving academic, behavioral, emotional moral and social competencies/skills among youth. Additionally, it appears that young people would be receptive to using youth-friendly media as prompts to address a growing cry for social justice, especially in urban spaces across the United States. The debate about whether such an approach will “protect kids” may never be resolved, however, it certainly could not hurt to educate all concerned about the key questions and core concepts for media literacy pedagogy.  More information about these key questions and core concepts can be found at: [http://www.medialit.org/].

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The real challenge we face is how to harness the intersection of technology, mass media, consumerism and popular culture to help young people develop skills and competencies required to thrive in school and beyond.  I do not have the answer, however, I believe the answer lies is facilitating dialogue for more critical thinking about the prevailing themes and messages in popular youth music media.  I also believe teaching the five key questions and core concepts of an inquiry-based media literacy pedagogy will enable young people and the adults in their lives to  address the ABCs of life; that is the attitudes and attributes ,beliefs and behaviors,  consequences and choices that may be linked to these prevailing themes and messages.  That’s my opinion. What’s yours?

By: Julian Owens

Julian Owens is a Post-Doctoral Fellow working with reserachers at the Johns Hopkins Center for Adolescent Health.