It has been a while since Canadian communications scholar Marshall McLuhan ignited the North American educational movement for media literacy in the 1950s and 1960s.
That was before every child, even from a very young age, had immediate access to everything and anything available in the world of digital media.
Since that time, it has become challenging, especially among younger generations, to separate digital media fact from fiction, truth from lies and reality from improbability.
Now UNESCO has investigated which countries were incorporating media studies into schools’ curricula as a means of identifying and developing new initiatives in the field of media education. Relying on 72 experts on media education in 52 countries around the world, the study found that media or digital literacy programs usually occur inside the context of formal K-12 education rather than as standalone courses.
Canada was the first country in North America to require media literacy in the school curriculum. Every province now has mandated media education in its curriculum, usually integrated with curricular subjects.
The B.C. Ministry of Education and Child Care defines digital literacy as “the interest, attitude and ability of individuals to appropriately use digital technology and communication tools to access, manage, integrate, analyze and evaluate information, construct new knowledge, create and communicate with others.”
In the U.S. in January, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed a law that requires all children in K-12 public schools to be taught media literacy. Classrooms around the country might teach these concepts informally, but this is the first time a state has implemented this kind of mandate.
Along with many other U.S. states that are pushing back against the tsunami of misinformation online, California will now require all K-12 students to learn media literacy skills — such as recognizing fake news and thinking critically about what they encounter on the internet.
Last month, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 873, which requires the state to add media literacy to curriculum frameworks for English language arts, science, math and history-social studies.
The new law comes amid rising public distrust in traditional media, especially among young people.
A 2022 Pew Research Center survey found that adults under age 30 are almost as likely to believe news derived from social media as they are to trust news from national news outlets. According to a Gallup poll conducted last year, only 7% of adults have a great deal of trust in traditional news sources.
Predictably, the academic community now regularly publishes research in publications such as the Journal of Media Literacy Education along with many other similar peer-reviewed journals. In fact, Wikipedia cites 71 different research articles on media literacy.
Another source of well-researched articles is the online Media Literacy Now site, run by an influential non-profit advocacy organization whose self-described mission is to ensure all students have the opportunity to learn the key 21st-century literacy skills they need.
Writing for Media Literacy Now, communications specialist Jasmin Franjul identifies cyberbullying, online radicalization gaming and sextortion, as being just some of the many online pitfalls for kids.
In addition, she says, “there are physiological and neurological effects we are only beginning to understand.”
The confusing nature of information available online is especially challenging for teenagers.
A Stanford study found that 82% of middle school students struggled to distinguish advertisements from news stories.
On the plus side, research on high school students has shown that participation in a media-literacy program was positively associated with clarifying information-seeking motives, media knowledge, critical thinking skills and news analysis skills.
For early-childhood teachers and for the parents of preschool children, Media Literacy for Young Children: Teaching Beyond the Screen Time Debates by Faith Rogow outlines how early-childhood educators and professionals can prepare children for their digital future.
Rogow’s book is described by the National Association for the Education of Young Children as a “first-of-its-kind guide for pre-service and currently practising teachers and child-care professionals looking for pedagogically sound and developmentally appropriate ways to help today’s children navigate their media-rich world with confidence, curiosity, and critical thinking.”
It includes, according to NAEYC, “detailed descriptions of media literacy competencies, along with dozens of activities, strategies, and tips designed for children ages 2–7, demonstrate how to integrate foundational skills, knowledge, and dispositions into existing routines as well as experiment with new lessons.”
As far as predictions about the long-term influence of media on our lives and the lives of our children, McLuhan said it best: “All media work us over completely. They are so persuasive in their personal, political, economic, esthetic, psychological, moral ethical and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered.”
Geoff Johnson is a former superintendent of schools.