Social Media Use and Media Literacy in Relation to Adolescents’ Understanding of the Internet


Digital media has permeated American culture among users of all ages. By early adolescence, youth are using and consuming media at unprecedented rates. While the majority of content consumed remains largely television and movies, often streamed through new channels like Amazon and YouTube, video games and apps also comprise a portion of the media diet. As youth enter adolescence, their usage of social media, defined as any platform that allows interactive communication in response to online posting, becomes more prevalent.

In this study, I explore Internet and social media use and its impact on adolescents’ understanding of media in three areas: media literacy, understanding of the technical (functional) complexity of the Internet, and understanding of the social complexity of the Internet. Media literacy research and education has been approached from protectionist or empowerment perspectives subsuming three core domains: 1) authors and audiences, 2) messages and meanings, and 3) representation and reality (Hobbs, 2006). Research as to how well children and adolescents understand the technical complexity of the Internet has shown that children have a limited understanding of how the Internet works and the complex interconnectedness of the network system (Yan, 2006). Research as to how children and adolescents understand the social complexity of the Internet shows that they are able to develop and maintain social relationships through digital media and navigate the social complexity in sophisticated ways (Livingstone et al., 2011).

The current study builds on Yan’s works and captures snapshots of children’s understanding of the complexity of the Internet in relation to the current digital landscape. Students were recruited and interviewed at a rural middle school (N=78, range 11-15 years). They were given a survey with questions about their Internet and social media use and media literacy. In an interview students were asked to produce drawings and respond to vignettes to explain what the Internet looked like, how files traveled through the Internet, and potential real world consequences of online actions. In a second session, small groups of students were shown an animated instructional video about how files are shared and saved on the Internet. They were given time to update their drawings of the Internet to include newly learned information.

Results suggest that media literacy is not a well-structured conceptual domain for children. The media literacy scale showed only moderate internal validity with factor analyses revealing three distinct clusters of questions, suggesting that media literacy may be domain specific rather than a specific variable. Media literacy correlates with self-reported grades; both media literacy and grades were negatively associated with multi-tasking.

Students’ drawings of the Internet indicated a lack of knowledge of the technical complexity of the Internet. Additionally how adolescents depicted the technical complexity of the Internet and their depictions and explanations of how files are transferred through the Internet were highly context specific. Responses to vignette questions about the social complexity of the Internet showed that most students were aware of potential risks to putting things online; however, how they characterized the risk was largely context specific.

Analysis of student drawings after they were revised showed a significant shift to a more sophisticated level of understanding of the technical complexity of the Internet. From these findings, I conclude that adolescents do benefit from explicit instruction but do not learn about the technical complexity of the Internet through experience with social media and the Internet alone.


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