How does one define a problem like media literacy? As W. James Potter notes in his 2010 essay “The State of Media Literacy,” the term means many different things to different people depending on where they stand on or how they use digital media. Scholars, educators, activists and people of different ages all view media literacy differently and their understanding of the term shapes how valuable they see it, especially when it comes to education and legislation.
At its simplest, the National Association for Media Literacy Education defines media literacy as, “the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create and act using all forms of communication.” Media literacy ranges from reading a book and discussing the author’s point of view to questioning whether a recent article about a political issue was written by an unbiased source, and what their bias is or how it shaped the piece.
Until recently, media literacy has not been a priority for the majority of the country. Only 18 states have some legislative solutions in place for addressing media literacy education. But with generative AI on the rise and increasingly used in everyday digital media — from “fake news” taken seriously to social media posts that make use of generated images to tell a story — states are coming to grips with providing the most vulnerable populations with the tools necessary to help them avoid being misinformed.
Delaware and New Jersey are the first states to have media literacy mandated for students starting in kindergarten. For New Jersey, the road to signing media literacy education into law began in 2016, but the earliest stirrings to legislate the issue could be seen well over a decade ago in the state’s classrooms with the early rise of students’ access to iPhones and the initial usage of Wikipedia.
While students had access to an immense amount of information in their pockets, they also weren’t able to discern what was real, what was trustworthy and why the Internet looks the way it does. That problem has only increased with the rise of trolls, bots and bad actors running social media platforms, and third-party “news” sites that reshape conversations about things like pop culture or politics.
“What students don’t understand is how content is created. They don’t understand aggregator sites, they don’t understand algorithms and how they work,” says Olga Polites, a retired English teacher who has advocated for media literacy legislation in New Jersey for several years in conjunction with Media Literacy Now, a research organization. “The hardware part was totally missing from their education, but so was the software part because they just didn’t understand how this information was being monetized by, you know, third parties.”
Media literacy isn’t just about understanding the way people can lie on the Internet. It’s about helping people understand that the Internet in 2023 is vastly different from what it was in 2003. So is the technology now used to create and consume content. Media literacy involves helping children, teenagers and even the very elderly to understand how digital information works, how cellphones and algorithms work, and the motivations behind certain kinds of content creation and dissemination.
While educators and librarians around the country have been taking up the challenge of media literacy on a small scale in their classrooms or libraries, legislation seeks to standardize the practices and create curriculums that keep students actively engaged with the concepts in an evolving information landscape.
All legislators should be thinking about where media literacy fits into their state’s education platforms and potential policy. In 2019, a report by Common Sense Media showed that teenagers tend to spend an average of seven hours a day on their phones during their free time. TikTok has fast become one of Gen Z’s primary sources for information despite the site’s major misinformation problem.
Beyond that, there’s a need for media literacy education for older generations as elderly people are at risk of falling for financial scams using AI-generated audio or conspiracies about politics. Media literacy can help provide a necessary cushion to protect teenagers and the elderly from being caught up in misinformation or disinformation, helping them make the best decisions around information they share and consume.
“Today, media literacy is a survival skill,” says Media Literacy Now founder and President Erin McNeill. “It’s something that we all need. There’s a lot of focus around social media platforms and cellphones in the schools so legislators care about this problem, and they’re looking for solutions.”
The solutions that many politicians have offered up, however, don’t center media literacy. They zero in on social media usage policies for students or banning cellphones in schools altogether — something that McNeill notes is only a part of the solution. Incorporating media literacy and Internet safety practices into the curriculum should be considered before throwing out the entire cellphone, because if students don’t understand why they need to be careful with what they create and consume, they won’t change or grow with the knowledge to bring those values into their adulthood.