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Media Literacy and Adolescent Health

In 2010 the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services identified health literacy as a priority area for national action in both the public and private sectors through A National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy. The plan specifically identified the type of education where “students can learn to be critical thinkers and seekers of health information.[i] The action plan also included the following goals:

  • Require all preservice teachers to have coursework in the instructional methods of health education.
  • Provide professional development for all teachers on health education teaching strategies, topics, skills, and age-appropriate health education
  • Incorporate health education into existing science, math, literacy, social studies, and computer instruction in grades K–12 by embedding health-related tasks, skills, and examples into lesson plans.[ii]

Following this lead, Healthy Teens, Healthy Schools (New York: Peter Lang) is intended for educators across levels and contexts in the shared responsibility of building critical media health literacy among adolescents. To this end, chapter two (“Mass Mediation of Health”) applies critical media health literacy to the social, political and economic constructions of health in the United States. The highly mediated and technologized society in the United States poses significant challenges to accessing and evaluating truthful, credible and meaningful health-related information about nutrition, exercise, mental health, and drugs. The chapter balances the protectionist and empowerment approaches of media literacy education and leverages them in the service of health literacy.

Chapter three (“Politics of Adolescent Health”) disentangles the various threads of research, legislation and policy that influence the health of adolescent youth. While the topic of health in the U.S. is predominantly framed as an individual choice and set of elective/learned behaviors, there are institutional forces at play that both facilitate and impede widespread health literacy. This chapter addresses the tension between individual liberties and government policy in the pursuit of achieving widespread health literacy.

Chapter four (“Race to the Top”) frames health as a right, not a privilege. The focus is on the search for equity and health for all, despite unjust food marketing practices, inequitable access to technology and economic disparity. While individual liberties are paramount, there are systemic forces that marginalize the chances for adolescent youth to achieve health.

Chapter five (“The Incredible Shrinking Curriculum”) takes an inside look at in-school practices in the U.S. and the noticeable disconnect between the felt needs of adolescents and the standards and practices of middle and secondary education. The disparity between these practices can no longer be ignored in the pursuit of healthy teens. The chapter sets the stage for a more integrated, critical media health literacy approach that is grounded in the recent move to a Common Core set of standards in English Language Arts, Mathematics and Science.

Chapter six (It Takes a Village) identifies the pockets of health literacy education that have emerged in recent decades in response to the obesity crisis among teens. I profile specific organizations that have emerged and their growing collaboration with schools, communities and families. This chapter identifies their specific features that provide power and potential for achieving widespread health among adolescent youth.

Achieving health in the 21st century requires educating individuals to understand the inequitable social, political, and economic dimensions to health, particularly inequitable structures such as access to nutritious foods, decreased emphasis on physical activity in schools, and the persuasive techniques used in food marketing. Such education also requires educators to help young people individually and collectively act upon their new knowledge and perceive themselves as agents of social change. Critical engagement with information and participation in the larger communities of which young people are a part are key to fostering healthy teens, healthier schools and the healthiest nation possible.

Healthy Teens, Healthy Schools: How Media Literacy Education Will Save Education in the United States will be available in early 2014.

[i] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy. Washington, DC. 2010. p. 33.

[ii] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy. Washington, DC. 2010. p. 34.

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