The new definition of media literacy: a collaboration on being, and feeling secure

Google ‘media literacy’ and you’ll retrieve Wikipedia results explaining the term as ‘the practice of critically evaluating and creating media’. For Hannah and Isabella, this is arguably accurate. However, for both security awareness expert, Hannah, and girls’ empowerment coach, Isabella, media literacy is better defined as a skill more important than ever before; the ability to differentiate what is real, and what has been filtered, edited, or airbrushed, for the purpose of being published online.

Credibility and motive, or point of view, also play a key part in the evolution of what it means to be media literate. A fundamental part of the study of media literacy is the ability to recognise marketing techniques; imagery and language used to directly influence consumer behaviour. For Hannah, who has spent nearly a decade in marketing, scrutinising the use of language used to sell or persuade is a both a passion and a habit. Every marketer will view an advertisement through their professional lens – they know exactly why each word has been used, what the image brief looked like, and whether or not the message aligns with the brand behind it. But this stuff doesn’t come so naturally to the generation following suit, or for those who simply aren’t trained to look for these techniques.

Isabella is trained in identifying psychological processes involved in how we perceive and construct the image of ourselves and the world around us, having studied their effects beyond degree level and completed a Research Masters in behaviour and cognition. She explains how media contributes to shaping our understanding of the world and that of ourselves, in ways we are largely unaware of, and why she believes that for teenagers, media literacy is especially important.

One of the main findings of the cognitive sciences has been that our perception of our environment, is to a significant extent, shaped by automatic processes, which happen outside of our awareness. In the research ‘Unveiling the Multimedia Unconscious,’ Christani M. and colleagues (2013) explain how this phenomenon also applies to our media consumption. Our cognition is constantly working to make sense of the world around us, however this process is mostly done “effortlessly, and even unintentionally.” These effortless and unintentional processes are also in the same way involved when we are consuming media.  Although our conscious attention is focused on what we are listening to, seeing or reading, our cognition automatically perceives beliefs, intentions, values, attitudes and other constructs that, while we do not necessarily become consciously aware of them, will still shape our reactions and behaviour.

“The thing is, media does not only shape our understanding of the world, it also very much influences our understanding of ourselves, as our understanding of ourselves is directly related to that of society, its ideals and representations. This is also why media is very good at telling us what we should buy, who we should be, or who we should become – often sold to us using emotional triggers and with an underlying message that these things will somehow increase our happiness.

From magazine covers, Instagram stories, perfectly photoshopped images, advertisements, to memes and Facebook videos, we are consuming and processing these constant streams of information daily. What I think is often very much overlooked is how big of an effect these types of messages could have teenagers, especially while they are in the midst of developing their identities. Teenagers’ identity is naturally developed and defined in relation to others, constant comparisons with others but also feedback seeking behaviour play an essential role in this process. With social media supplying a constant flow of incoming information but also the opportunity to share and create, social media naturally becomes a place to not only compare yourself to others but also to look for validation, attention and to define your social status.  The problem is that the images teenagers are exposed to can be very limiting, create a lot of social pressure and portray unattainable and narrow standards of success, perfection and beauty. Research by Paik A. & Sanchagrin K. (2013) showed us that this kind of exposure to others’ perfect self-representation (as especially encouraged on platforms such as Instagram) can intensify one’s body image concerns and a sense of social alienation.

“As I work to empower teenage girls, social media, and the sexualisation of girls in media are to me very important topics.  Girls are, first of all, more likely to compare their physical attractiveness to others’ online photos; however most digital photography represents completely unattainable beauty standards, and this is especially threatening to their sense of self-worth. We also know from the research by Nesi J. & Prinstein M. (2015) who specifically looked at social comparison and feedback-seeking, that associations between reassurance-seeking behaviours and depressive symptoms may be particularly strong among teenage girls, for whom rates of depression are higher in general. But it’s not just unattainable standards of physical beauty. In online media, girls are sexualized everywhere, in music videos, lyrics, Instagram posts,, as well as the countless highly sexualized images used by brands, influencers, and their pop idols. Girls don’t only compare themselves to these female representations, but can also quickly ‘learn’ that these behaviours are rewarded, and provide an easy way to get attention, popularity and validation, and so begin to engage in self-sexualisation at young ages – in a learning process that they might not even be very consciously aware of.

“I believe that we hold the responsibility to be much more sympathetic to the influence of social media in teenagers’ lives, I think that is a very important place to start. We often focus on the time they spend behind the device, yet spend less time tuning into how social media might be affecting their mental health. We should keenly teach media literacy, but also create more awareness about the importance and necessity of it in today’s education system. We should get used to talking much more openly about this topic, as well discussing teenagers’ personal experiences, and questioning heavily sexualized images or lyrics when we become aware that our kids are exposed to or engaged with this kind of content. Themes including social comparison, self-worth and positive self-image should definitely not be overlooked in these conversations.”

Common Sense Media provides useful guidelines for media literacy, detailing the importance of being responsible for your own point of view, understanding the consequences of sharing your opinion, recognising that media is used to sway and shape our interpretation of the world and recognising what the author’s goal is, in order to make informed choices. This source is highly recommended for parents and children all over the world who are conscious about what and how they consume content online.

“Browse Netflix and you’ll find the same theme repeated over and over in an attempt to appeal to our desire to experience two worlds.” Hannah, cyber security awareness expert and owner of EXHALE Barcelona, explains why media literacy is deeply intertwined with healthy attitudes towards being connected and protecting ourselves from cyber attacks.

“It’s real life versus virtual reality, often tinged with a retro filter and an 80s throwback soundtrack. The difference in 2018 is that now, this tech is actually available to the mass market. We can experience VR in our own homes, at a fairly accessible price. From Ready Player One, to classic Tron, it’s clear that this concept is nothing new and remains powerful at capturing our attention.

“The guidelines shared via Common Sense Media are extremely important. My focus, a little like the pop culture I’ve just mentioned, consists of more than one dimension. I work with companies to revolutionise their security awareness communications, personalising the content, applying the brand style and pushing the boundaries as much as possible to deliver something more engaging than people have seen before. I also work with younger audiences to encourage smart behaviours online that will not only help protect them from cybercrime, but also promote a more balanced use of tech as a whole. Switching off enables us to experience real life with all our senses, and simply being offline and sharing a little less personal information makes us more secure by default. It’s a step towards mitigating some of the risky behaviours that Isabella so powerfully highlights, and the subsequent negative thought patterns.

“Being smart online means developing a strong sense of awareness about your digital footprint and online presence. Sure, it’s important to have a personal brand and digital channels are the most effective way to achieve this, but in that case, remember that everything you do online contributes towards that picture, and keep this in mind from an early age. It’s not news that employers will often look you up online to see if who you claim to be in your CV matches your social media profiles. And this is where the topic of cyber security comes up – if you really want to manage your personal brand effectively and protect yourself from identity theft, online impersonation and social engineering attacks, give your privacy settings a little love. You’re in control of those, no matter what the headlines say about how social media giants exploiting personal data. Each and every one of us is responsible for how we use the platforms we’ve got access to, and that includes managing how our data is published and shared. Rachel Tobac, co-founder and CEO of SocialProof Security breaks down the basics of social engineering in this interview and explains that you should never authenticate unsolicited contact with information publicly available online. If you know you’ve shared your dog’s middle name on Instagram, don’t authenticate your identity with that data when someone calls you out of the blue claiming they’ve got a pet remarkably similar to yours.

“Educating young people (and older ones!) about why their online presence carries so much weight and why a secure mindset is crucial, is, for me, about championing positive interactions with technology and broadening the next generations horizons. If what goes online stays online, make sure it shows you in the best light – and by that I don’t mean spend hours filtering your own vanity project – use digital media to demonstrate what you can do and to make thoughtful contributions in a world and time when the vast majority of online content is unreliable. Understand the author’s motive, recognise when something is trying to influence your thoughts or behaviour and be conscious about how your opinion could be construed, or used to manipulate you into divulging sensitive information that could be used to defraud you. There’s a wealth of opportunity out there and careers in cyber security that offer a true sense of purpose and reward. It’s not about STEM or code, it’s about dialogue and the difference a few deep breaths make to being able to distinguish what’s genuine, and what’s not.”


  • Use popular cultural references to initiate conversation at home about healthy, balanced use of technology
  • Support each other with becoming more media literate. Ask your teen to point out where filters have been used, and highlight the repercussions of publishing content online irresponsibly, using today’s headlines to start the dialogue
  • Refer to free online resources, like Common Sense Media, to brush up on your knowledge and discover creative ways and talking points to sustain a more open, trusting relationship with your teen(s)
  • Promote smart online behaviour and explore together the opportunities available, for girls and women in particular, to address the gender gap in cyber security
  • Take a few deep breaths every time you get the urge to take a photo, filter it and post it, to remember that the most beautiful moments happen offline, in the real world



This is a collaboration with Isabella Renirie

Isabella Renirie is a young psychologist working as an empowerment coach for teenage girls. During her Bachelor of psychology from the University of Maastricht (UCM), she wrote her dissertation on the neurodevelopment of adolescents, risk-seeking behaviour and the integration of emotions and cognition – where her interest in the teenage years began. She then received her master degree in Behaviour and Cognition, which focused on the study and research of different areas of personality, psychological assessment and treatment, neuroscience and neuroplasticity.

She strongly believes that girls can sometimes use help in writing their success stories, to be encouraged to dream big and be reminded that they are more than capable. She wants to help them set their minds for success and positivity, and to take advantage of the amazing opportunities that they have, instead of struggling with things like confidence issues, perfectionism, and self-doubt. That’s why she started her empowerment project for teenage girls, not only coaching but also developing workshops and retreats to create a space where girls can be themselves, share with one another, learn and develop their self-awareness. With the ability to relate, her age, open-mindedness, and a touch of humour, she is able to easily develop meaningful relationships with millennials of different ages.

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