How do we imagine children and young people’s role as digital citizens? What do we expect them to know and understand about online platforms? Over the last decade we have witnessed major transformations in children’s and young people’s access to and immersion in the digital environment. While there has been a considerable focus on the risks and safety issues that arise, much less attention has been paid to the positive ways in which society hopes children will and can engage as agents in a digital world. When children gain access to digital skills and media literacy, will society really be ready for their critical engagement? Or, in practice, are we mainly concerned with protection and coping with online risks?
As part of the CO:RE webinar series on theory, we invited four speakers from different perspectives to debate the theories and concepts that underpin such questions. Chairing the discussion, Sonia Livingstone, Department of Media and Communications, London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), asked the speakers to explain how they define ‘digital skills’ and what theories, disciplines or traditions they draw on to inform their work. How do they see the relation between the theory and practice of media literacy, digital skills and/or digital citizenship? She also invited them to explain why media literacy is important and to whom, and why it would matter if we did not promote it.
Media literacy and critical awareness
Tessa Jolls, President of the Center for Media Literacy, focused on three main aspects of media literacy:
- Media literacy is a global movement that arises from the efforts of many teachers over the years and their strong commitment to provide access to media literacy for all citizens.
- Media literacy is a field with a strong and growing evidence base, though ever more research is needed to understand children’s engagement with the media environment, and to inform media literacy practice – for we must educate a billion people!
- Media literacy is a pedagogy. We need pedagogies to educate children and to provide the foundational understanding of media literacy that is needed globally.
These three conceptual areas inform practice and they form the basis for media literacy evaluations.
Furthermore, Tessa Jolls argued that media literacy involves a process of inquiry which aims to explore how the world is represented to us and how we represent ourselves to the world. By providing a framework with which to access, analyse, evaluate, create and participate using messages in a variety of forms, it builds an understanding of the role of media in society, as well as essential skills of inquiry and self-expression necessary for citizens in democratic societies.
Hence, we can identify five principles of media literacy awareness:
- Awareness that all media messages are constructed.
- Media messages are constructed using a creative language with its own rules.
- Different people experience the same media message differently.
- Media have embedded values and points of view.
- Most media messages are organised to gain profit and/or power.
The five core concepts and key questions of the framework for consumers and producers are listed in the figure below.
“It is amazing to see how there is a strong passion among many teachers and educators and to see their strong commitment to provide access to media literacy for all citizens.” (Tessa Jolls, Center for Media Literacy)
Media and information literacy for the 21st century
Alton Grizzle, Programme Specialist in Communication and Information at UNESCO, argued that ‘media and information literacy’ (MIL) represents UNESCO’s effort to encapsulate a wide range of information, media and digital/technological competences that people need in the 21st century. It includes a range of competencies – from being better able to search and critically evaluate information and media content to effective participation in governance and democratic processes.
Alton Grizzle criticised approaches which focus primarily on the challenges and the negative effects of information and communication technology (ICT). Media and information literacy should include multiple cross-cutting components:
- the purpose: why people use information and engage with media and other information providers, such as information for problem solving, entertainment, engagement in society, or learning;
- the understanding: e.g. roles and functions of media and other information provider in society, ethics of information storage and use, or professional standards and quality; and
- the process: e.g. what are the skills to critically analyse or evaluate media content, to define and articulate information needs).
This calls for a multimodal and multi-literacy approach.
“We need to engage young people not only as beneficiaries of digital competencies, but also as co-creators and co-leaders in developing media and information literacies.” (Dr Alton Grizzle, UNESCO)
Digital skills – capturing all dimensions
Ellen Helsper (LSE) defined digital literacy as:
“the ability to use ICTs (or decide not to use them) in ways that allow people to obtain beneficial outcomes and avoid negative outcomes across all domains of everyday life for themselves and others now and in the future.”
Most definitions in the research field focus on the ability to use ICTs, but it is also important to examine why individuals decide not to use ICTs (for example, when trying to avoid potential harm or when the benefits of use are lacking). Ellen Helsper also pointed out that, while discussions of adults’ digital literacy tend to focus on increasing beneficial outcomes, the discussions around young people tend to focus on avoiding negative outcomes. Yet opportunities to benefit and risks of harm are strongly interconnected and often go hand in hand.
Since society is fundamentally unequal, the outcomes of technology use are unequally distributed. To reduce digital inequalities, research and policy should begin by understanding the outcomes that people are trying to achieve through their engagement with ICT. Digital skills may not only further benefits for individuals but also forms of participation in the digital world in ways that create a positive collective environment for others. Such definition of digital literacy forces those trying to tackle digital inequalities to start with an understanding of how technologies might be constructed and framed differently for different communities.
Ellen Helsper argued that the existing digital skills literature mainly focuses on ‘hard’ skills such as ‘technical and operational skills’ (e.g. how to operate ICTs, ranging from ‘button’ knowledge to programming) and ‘information navigation and processing skills’ (i.e., the ability to find, select, and evaluate digital sources of information). However, ‘soft’ skills such as ‘interaction and communication’ (i.e. the ability to develop positive relationships, exchange meaning and pool resources) and ‘content creation and consumption’ (measuring critical understanding and evaluation of impact) are fundamental for translating digital engagement into different well-being outcomes.
“Digital skills are not only about education, they are also about children’s future, participation, staying connected.” (Prof Ellen Helsper, LSE)
From digital skills to digital citizenship
Sandra Cortesi (Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, Harvard University) suggested that the concept of digital citizenship has become central to discussions about youth, education, and learning in the 21st century. A variety of stakeholders (including government, international organisations, NGOs, and academia) have adopted the term to develop and shape formal and informal learning programmes that aim to help youth address the challenges and embrace the opportunities the digital environment affords.
Yet, there is little consensus on the areas that digital citizenship should encompass (e.g. safety and well-being, civic and political engagement, identity exploration) or the role of digital skills within them. Sandra Cortesi worked with colleagues to explore the debate around the concept of digital citizenship. They identified 17 main areas that constitute digital citizenship: 1) artificial intelligence, 2) civic and political engagement, 3) computational thinking, 4) content production, 5) context, 6) data, 7) digital access, 8) digital economy, 9) digital (literacy), 10) identity exploration and formation, 11) information quality, 12) law, 13) media (literacy), 14) positive/respectful behaviour, 15) privacy and reputation, 16) safety and well-being, and 17) security. Drawing on this, Sandra Cortesi proposed the notion of “digital citizenship+ (plus)” as a way of incorporating the skills needed for youth to fully participate academically, socially, ethically, politically, and economically in a rapidly evolving digital world.
Sandra Cortesi pointed out the importance of translating this into practice and the need for different stakeholders to contribute to this effort as no one entity can solve this issue on their own. It is important to create a learning ecosystem for the 21st century that can meet the unique needs of each individual learner, that takes advantage of every resource and opportunity inside and outside of a school, and that connects those opportunities together.
“We need to have a collaboration across stakeholder groups to support digital skills, citizenship and reduce inequalities.” (Sandra Cortesi, Harvard University)
Media literacy, digital skills and digital citizenship have become a topic of growing importance in the academic field, as well as among policy-makers and practitioners. A variety of stakeholders have adopted different terms and concepts to describe or categorise the various skills that aim to help children and adolescents address the potential risks and embrace the opportunities in the digital world. Consequently, the debate about media literacy, skills, citizenship and other related terms and concepts (e.g., literacy versus competency, versus (a set of) skills) is rather fragmented. Instead, we need a shared conceptual understanding and commitment which can support stakeholders in creating and implementing educational programmes and initiatives.
Children and young people are too often seen as digital natives but many struggle to master the full range of digital skills and literacies. Children’s access to and experiences of digital technologies vary by demographic or contextual factors (such as socio-economic status, gender and sexual identity, ethnic background, religion or educational level). It is important to recognise these inequalities to ensure the educational interventions are tailored to children’s diverse needs and able to support the most vulnerable youngsters.
As discussed by the speakers, the public debate on children’s media literacy, digital skills and digital citizenship is mainly centred on assessing and understanding the potential risks and harms from engaging with the digital environment, while attention to the potential opportunities afforded by digital technology is comparatively new. Future research, policy and practice should focus on a more holistic approach balancing protection and participation as a way of both minimising risks and making sure children can exercise their rights as digital citizens.
Finally, media literacy and improving digital skills is a multi-stakeholder challenge which involves parents, educators, policy makers, industry. By collaborating together stakeholders can work to create a learning ecosystem for the 21st century that takes into account the unique needs of individual learners, maximises resources and opportunities, and results in tangible outcomes in a digital future. Children and young people need to be involved as co-designers of this process and to be part of a collaborative and participatory environment where they help create effective digital literacy interventions that are useful and meaningful to them.
View the webinar
Center for Media Literacy resources: Special Curriculum Programs and Services: Educator Resources; Literacy for the 21st Century: An Overview & Orientation Guide To Media Literacy Education; Five key questions and core concepts
Cortesi, Sandra Clio and Hasse, Alexa and Lombana-Bermudez, Andres and Kim, Sonia and Gasser, Urs (2020) Youth and Digital Citizenship+ (Plus): Understanding Skills for a Digital World (March 20, 2020). Berkman Klein Center Research Publication No. 2020-2
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