Media Literacy Matters

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Children and youth today have the world at their fingertips. They can access libraries with the click of a button, download thousands of books on smart devices, and read newspapers from across the globe. While many young people may be physically separated by geography and/or socially separated by race or income, the Internet has been heralded as a democratizing force, allowing young people to interact with people and ideas different from their own.

Yet in the wake of the presidential election, many are questioning these basic assumptions about media and democracy. Is the Internet an echo chamber or a bridge builder? Does technology facilitate democratic conversation or drive us further apart? Does social media accelerate the distribution of credible knowledge or peddle "fake news" to drive revenues?

News, news, everywhere

These questions about the relationship between information, technology, and democracy are important ones. Accelerating trends among youth make media literacy an urgent priority:

  • The news and information that young people consume is increasingly curated by digital intermediaries like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and other platforms.
  • News and information are more likely to be consumed through integrated online experiences that consist of socializing, entertainment, and information-seeking alike. News is woven into young people's online experience, whether they are consciously consuming it or not.

These trends actually help debunk the myth that young people belong to a "newsless" generation. At least 85% of young people today report that keeping up with the news is at least somewhat important to them. Young people today are exposed to more news about the world and about their local communities than previous generations. They are hungry for information and seek it out in the meaningful context of relationships and social action that social media provides.

Yet while youth are increasingly savvy at navigating social platforms, too many aren't as well equipped to evaluate the content they find there. A recent Stanford University study took a look at what they call "civic online reasoning," or the ability to judge the credibility of information online. Their findings are cause for alarm. For example, over 80% of middle school students couldn't distinguish between sponsored content and a real news story online. Many students also used the presence of an attached photo rather than the source to determine the validity of a newsy tweet. The researchers did not mince words when summing up their findings. "Overall, young people’s ability to reason about the information on the Internet can be summed up in one word: bleak."

Start asking questions

If young people are exposed to more news in more ways than prior generations, learning how to discern credible sources from questionable ones and having the tools to understand bias, spin, and framing are even more important. Librarians and media specialists have long taken on the role of nurturing critical media literacy at school but we parents would be wise to partner with them and reinforce this learning at home.

You don't have to be an expert to start raising a media literate child. Indeed, nurturing media literacy is more about asking good questions than delivering lectures. While watching TV or reading content online try asking questions about:

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We've drawn these questions from a number of sources, including our own work, the Center for Media Literacy's Q/Tips framework, Project Look Sharp, Media Smarts, and others. You can find follow-up resources at the Media Literacy Now website.

From consumers to creators.

Finally, encourage young people to be creators, not just consumers. Learning about the research process, interviewing, writing, editing, or production is a great way for children and youth to really understand that media are constructed.

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