Youth are accessing a remarkable number of mediums (often at the same time!), and are constantly exposed to a wide and deep array of content. This spans the gamut from texts and notifications, to TikTok videos and Snap(chat) stories, to Twitter Spaces and Discord chats. This tidal wave of content is not going to ebb. Instead, it will continue to swell (at a rate which is currently unknown but concerning to imagine). We cannot go back in time to reduce the flow of content. We also cannot govern and vouch for the quality of content that others post and share. So, we must teach our youth to be informed consumers of what they see on the Web, on social media platforms, and even in their own typed-out conversations (and those of others).
Recently, I spoke at the National Association of Media Literacy Education’s (NAMLE) annual conference, and in preparation did a lot of thinking about how strengthening youth skills in this area can buffer against various online harms. Media literacy has been defined as the ability to access, create, analyze, and evaluate messages in a variety of forms [1, 2] and these components operate in a nonlinear and recursive fashion where they help and act upon one another . To be clear, Justin’s and my paradigmatic approach to media literacy is specific to digital media. This is because the content that most young people (and perhaps most adults, depending on certain demographic groups) consume and produce is digital. Rather than call it digital media literacy and intentionally exclude TV news broadcasts and hard-copy newspaper articles, we choose to simply use the term media literacy with this general understanding in mind.
When considering the main tenets of the aforementioned definition of media literacy, much has been written about access to media [3, 4], and countries and companies around the globe continue to make headway in connecting people to media and each other. We will focus on the three other components, recognizing how imperative it is that youth learn to properly create, analyze, and evaluate messages and content across a variety of spaces and contexts . What is more, we strongly believe that these three specific skills can help equip and empower youth to keep themselves and others safe online.
When I think about our youth and their ability to create, I am thunderstruck because they are so freaking good at it. But there is always this temptation to push the proverbial envelope when it comes to the content they make so that it captures more eyeballs in such a heavily competitive marketplace of ideas. Do our youth have the media literacy skills they need to create content in such a way that is appealing and compelling and memorable but also is 1) unoffensive 2) inclusive and 3) enhances their digital reputation? Can our youth be global influencers who make the world a better place while maintaining their integrity and inspiring others to do the same?
Creating content in a media literate manner would also mean that when someone is being cyberbullied, they volitionally respond in a courageous, incisive, and intelligent way to deflect the harassment, distract the harasser, or defuse the tense situation – all forms of counterspeech. Generally speaking, counterspeech involve responses to hateful messages intended to de-escalate conflict, soften arguments, encourage civility, implicate the conscience, and shift norms of discourse[6-8]. Whether they post supportive messages for marginalized individuals or groups who are being disparaged, or elevate the voice of the voiceless through retweets and shares, or neutralize arguments through humor, memes, or other linguistic devices, counterspeech manifested in the content users insightfully and skillfully create can do a world of good in reducing harm [6, 9].
To be sure, the subheading above likely reminds one of the realities of misinformation (incorrect or misleading information) and disinformation (deliberately deceptive information) that has plagued society in recent years given the power of individuals to say whatever they want, whenever they want, to larger and larger audiences. But we also see that the aggression shown by some youth towards others online may germinate from numerous examples of increasingly contentious, discriminatory, and even hateful discourse modeled around them [10, 11] and brought front-and-center to their eyeballs via their consumption of media. As such, media literacy can help youth healthily grow in their sociopolitical development  and critical consciousness [13, 14] and help them discover (and care!) whether they are thinking independently and insightfully, or if they have become sheeple who blindly follow ideologies that will lead them off a cliff.
Furthermore, being able to analyze content with thoughtfulness, incisiveness, and wisdom can also help individuals become upstanders instead of bystanders. What are youth seeing around them – in their group chats, in the comments section of their posts, in the chat channels of their stream? What are the norms of interaction that should be expected and enforced, and what are some outlier behaviors which crop up? Are youth inured to the online punches and jabs they witness towards others? Can they capably recognize the difference between the appropriate sharing of opinions, and the kind which victimizes another? When someone is being targeted, do they dismiss it as a joke or harmless banter? Do they rationalize inaction because it’s someone else’s problem and not theirs? Or does their spidey-sense tingle and give them pause, and then compel them to action?
Those who lack media literacy and have no skill in analyzing what they are seeing will miss so much, and may unwittingly contribute to another’s victimization through sheer ignorance or passivity.
Ultimately, we want youth to reflexively and constantly analyze the relational dynamics and social interactions that are occurring in the spaces they inhabit online. We need them to be able to deftly scrutinize and process the five W’s (who, what, when, where, and why) of any message or piece of content that causes them concern. After sizing up the situation, we need them to know certain steps to take in response to reduce victimization online, and to prevent its transference offline. Those who lack media literacy and have no skill in analyzing what they are seeing will miss so much, and may unwittingly contribute to another’s victimization through sheer ignorance or passivity. Those proficient in media literacy will have the analytic skills to comprehend what is unfolding before their eyes, and will be able take appropriate, mature, and decisive action.
Youth (well, all of us!) must level up when it comes to our ability to accurate evaluate the quality and veracity – of what we see online. We mention misinformation and disinformation above, but other forms of deception have arisen as well. For example, cyberbullying has occurred through the use of deepfakes, where original images of teens are altered using software to make it look like they are doing something illegal or inappropriate. If one is highly media literate, they would be able to spot discrepancies like inconsistent eye blinking or swallowing, nonuniform or uneven audio clarity, irregular artifacts in parts of the video, or microscopic glitching or jittering [15, 16]. And then they’d be able to know that the content is actually fiction, rather than fact.
Similarly, someone who is media literate would be better able to evaluate the DMs or private chat that randomly came in from a cute boy or cute girl who compliments and flirts with them, attempts to build a romantic relationship with them, and then solicit nudes from them. Can you trust this person? Are they who they say they are? Is it really worth sending this picture or video, and then finding out the girl was actually a middle-aged man who is now blackmailing you for money with the threat that he is going to send your sexual content to everyone [17-19]? Careful evaluation of what others say and do is a monumentally critical skill in a day and age where the potential for scams and victimization online is on the rise .
Careful evaluation of what others say and do is a monumentally critical skill in a day and age where the potential for scams and victimization online is on the rise.
Create, Analyze, and Evaluate – those are the skills we must teach young people so that they can thoughtfully consume media that they seek out and media that is pushed to their social media feeds. If we do this with intentionality. As we do so, three major, impactful outcomes should result. First, we will produce a population who knows how to intelligently and conscientiously create content that is does more good than harm. Second, media literacy will prevent unhealthy, unhelpful, and untrue attitudes, perspectives, and behaviors from becoming adopted and mainstreamed in youth culture despite their pernicious ubiquity in the unregulated space of social media. Third, we will help the newest generation reduce their risk of being victimized online, and equip them to truly support one another when targeted. In our increasingly connected and digitized world, media literacy is as critical as reading and writing to the proper development of our children – and it is time for schools, communities, and families to duly and meaningfully prioritize it.
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