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Student View: Media Literacy and Desensitisation

By Abbey Colgan

Abbey Colgan is a first-year BA Joint Honours student at Dublin City University where she studied media literacy in the School of Communications. 

The topic of media literacy has flourished in recent years and for good reason. The access and availability of media has grown exponentially and Irish pre-teens and teenagers have grown up in a society penetrated with multiple forms of media. It seems most important to explain media effects and the potential of desensitisation to this group of so-called ‘digital natives’.

A simple understanding of media literacy is: “the ability to access, analyse, evaluate and create media in a variety of forms” (Aufderheide 1993). Many young people in Ireland would consider themselves to be media literate, but they may not have much knowledge about media effects and the way we react (often unknowingly) to the media that we are consuming constantly.

According to the Growing Up in Ireland Survey, 29% of Irish thirteen-year-olds spend up to two hours online on an average weekday, and 13% spend more than three hours online. These statistics exemplify just how prominent the use of media, and social media in particular, is among Irish youth.  What they may not know is that the media create effects including changes in emotions, behaviours, and beliefs. Over-exposure to certain kinds of messages can also lead to desensitisation. Media literacy asks us to be aware of this.

Have you ever felt moved after watching a film with a happy-ending? Using James Potter’s model, you could think about whether the effect was immediate or not (timing); whether the effect was a positive, negative, or neutral one (valence); whether the film was created with the intention of making viewers happy (intentionality); and the various changes in attitudes, behaviour, or thinking you experienced (type of effect). The same questions could be applied to TikTok videos or Instagram images or watching the news.

Desensitisation is an example of a long- term effect. Desensitisation happens, Potter argues, when “continual exposure to a certain kind of media message erodes the intensity of our emotional reaction”. For example, if young people are overly-exposed to certain kinds of violent media, could this lead to a lack of empathy towards the victims of violence? Consider the popular romanticisation of serial killers in contemporary media. Conventionally attractive actors are cast to play serial killers like Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer. Why is the media so focused on emphasising the attractive qualities of these murderous individuals? Writing in Cosmopolitan, Daniella Scott argues “casting heart-throbs seems to play into the idea that abuse, violence and manipulation are all things to be romanticized.” Could this trend desensitize us to violence?

Others argue that the media do not have such a direct influence on beliefs. They suggest media effects on beliefs are limited. Yet, asking whether the media influence empathy for others is very relevant. There has never been so much media coverage of violent events including coverage of the ongoing genocide in Gaza. Is the bombardment of violent images and videos leading to a desensitized population? Perhaps it depends on the kind of media people consume. Sometimes, images of violence can be a proactive tool to raise awareness and spread important information. 

Media literacy doesn’t have all the answers, but acknowledging how we react to media is central to developing media literacy. That means analysing the way the media affects us, looking at our emotions, or noticing the intentions behind the messages we encounter. This allows us to appreciate the potential of the media and how to use and access it in ways that are beneficial. It also allows us to safeguard ourselves from the negative influences of certain media messages. 

This opinion piece is part of a blog series from DCU students.