Mass media play an increasingly significant role in today’s society. Even when one is not searching for information, mass media permeate everyone’s environment, influencing their world view and decision-making. Therefore, young people need to consciously and critically analyze and evaluate mass media messages and only then decide how to respond. Otherwise, they will not make reasoned decisions, and they will suffer the consequences of their assumptions or ignorance. They must be media literate. Furthermore, as digital citizens, youth need to leverage media to give voice and generate information to contribute to their society.
Most youth feel comfortable using media for entertainment or communicating with friends, but they often do not have academic, technical or critical thinking skills or know how to express themselves effectively online in public discourse. On the other hand, when people use the Internet to exchange information, they are more likely to be civically engaged, which can apply to media, and longitudinal studies found that civically engaged youth are more successful later in life.
While media literacy is a lifelong skill, the logical time to start teaching such literacy is in K-12 educational settings so that all people have the opportunity to learn and practice media literacy, even as early as kindergarten. In advocating for media literacy education, the National Association for Media Literacy Education identified six core principles for such education: active inquiry and critical thinking about media, need to address all forms of media, reinforcement of lifelong skills, development of civic engagement, media as part of culture and a socialization agent, individual construction of meaning from media messages. Silverblatt, Ferry and Finan (1999) suggested five approaches to teach media literacy: ideological analysis based on cultural studies, autobiographical analysis, nonverbal analysis (paralanguage), mythic analysis (allegories and belief systems), and analysis of production elements such as visual principles and editing practices.
While media has not been integrated well into traditional curricula, its impact on political and daily decision-making highlights its need to be part of formal education. Obstacles include lack of teacher expertise, competing educational demands, and lack of resources. Nevertheless, several curricular areas lend themselves to the examination and expression of media, one of them being science. Teachers can use science-related fake news in the media to foster not only stronger scientific thinking but also increased research skills, improved communications skills, and science-oriented civic engagement. In particular, teachers can help students apply these skills to serve as citizen scientists.
Media-enhanced digital citizenship is most effective when addressed explicitly with authentic and meaningful tasks, especially creative media-based expression in public discourse. The following steps can guide instruction.
Awareness. Educators need to make youth aware that the quality of information can impact their lives, and that abusing media can have dire long-term concrete consequences.
Connection. Learners connect with media kinesthetically, intellectually, emotionally. However, before they can comprehend the information, they need to decode its “language”, be it verbal, visual, or sound. Only then can they begin to understand the content in terms of associated concepts and societal consequences. When connecting to media from a digital citizen perspective, one of the most effective strategies is case studies: analyzing media messages for their production value, message and context, audience, and agenda.
Manipulating Information. Moving beyond the receiving, or consumer end, of media, youth should experience and hone their “producer” or contributing side of media in order to express and create digital citizen information” graphically, numerically, as a diagram, as a well-formed argument. They should learn how to manipulate knowledge representations; for example, learners might draw conclusions from data shown in a news cast by verifying and building upon the numbers to reveal patterns such as the relationship between gas emissions and health. As learners become proficient in different media manipulation strategies, they can begin to ascertain when a method would be appropriate given the nature of the information and the intended use of them. In public discourse, learners might create an infographic or a public service announcement.
Application. How does one act civically, particularly as a responsible digital citizen, within public discourse? Some student-empowering activities that enable learners to create and disseminate media as digital citizens include:
• creating products for the community: videos, podcasts, web pages
• capturing community oral and visual history
• training and mentoring civic members in responsible media use
• interning as citizen journalists
• participating in social initiatives such as TakingITGlobal, Youth Outlook, Chain of Change, Student Voices Project, and Global Citizen Project.
Teaching students about pro-active digital citizenship via media literacy is a social justice action in that it provides the conditions for thoughtful and caring engagement with the world – and the media tools to improve it. To reach these goals, educators need to actively collaborate with the entire school community to develop curriculum that addresses media literacy, digital citizenship and civic engagement.