As we’ve gained more and more access to digital content (be it news, entertainment, or a combination of the two), we’ve had to more thoroughly question and define how we interact with it. This has resulted in the emergence of two terms: media literacy and digital literacy. To put it simply, media literacy is the ability to contextualize and analyze the information we see, both  online and off. Digital literacy, on the other hand, refers to the ways we create and share online media.

But these broad definitions don’t really capture how intertwined, and absolutely essential both of these skills are — they’re needed for virtually every part of our lives (work, school, socializing, and beyond). As MediaSmarts, a not-for-profit Canadian digital resource program, points out, “although digital and media literacy both draw on the same core skill of critical thinking, the fact that most digital media are networked and interactive raises additional issues and requires additional habits and skills.” In their words, “media literacy generally focuses on teaching youth to be critically engaged consumers of media, while digital literacy is more about enabling youth to participate in digital media in wise, safe, and ethical ways.”

So, what do kids need in order to effectively practice digital literacy? The Tech Edvocate has identified four main pillars:

  1. Access: understanding how to use computers and the internet.
  2. Authorship: identifying who creates online media.
  3. Representation: discerning what content is trustworthy.
  4. Social responsibility: sharing online content in an ethical way.

These pillars may seem like no brainers — after all, adults exercise digital literacy everyday. From managing photos in the Cloud and reading a Yelp restaurant review, to researching how to teach media literacy at home, nearly all of our online activities require some understanding of access, authorship, representation, and social responsibility. But for kids and young teens, it’s not that simple, and the need for digital literacy will only increase as we become more interconnected — it’s now necessary for parents and teachers to meld HTML with the ABCs.

School’s in session

Much like parents are focusing on teaching digital literacy at home, schools are also beginning to adjust their curriculums for the tech-driven era. The Province of British Columbia, for example, has laid out a specific model for exploring digital literacy in the classroom — its framework focuses on six characteristics (many of which are similar to the Tech Edvocate pillars listed above) that educational leaders believe are required for success in the 21st century:

  1. Research and information literacy: using digital tools to collect and analyze information.
  2. Critical thinking, problem solving, and decision making: making informed decisions with the help of online tools and resources.
  3. Creativity and innovation: developing creative and innovative products/processes using technology.
  4. Digital citizenship: practicing legal and ethical behavior online.
  5. Communication and collaboration: using technology for individual and collaborative learning.
  6. Technology operations and concepts: understanding digital systems and operations.

Teaching digital literacy can begin as early as kindergarten, and continue all the way through middle school and high school. The provincial curriculum suggests instructors use innovative and interactive methods, like email pen pals and media-rich presentations, to educate kids about correct computer terminology, coding, troubleshooting, and online citing/sourcing, among other digital literacy concepts.

Comprehending digital literacy

Higher education

Aside from learning how to use and interact with online media, having a well-rounded understanding of digital literacy requires that kids fully comprehend the power of the internet. Behavioral basics (like refraining from cyberbullying) are imperative, but so is the ability to understand the internet’s infinite memory. Young children don’t always realize that something as innocuous as a photo can last forever online, even if it’s been “deleted” — digital footprints are easy to trace back to an individual. What’s more, in an era when music, film, memes, and photos are accessible to anyone with wifi, teaching students to recognize creative ownership is integral from a young age. According to MediaSmarts, children as young as seven years old can recognize that copying is wrong — there’s a clear villan (the copier) and victim (the person being copied). Online plagiarism, however, can feel somewhat anonymous (read: victimless), and therefore more difficult for children to identify as being morally wrong.

Despite its importance, digital literacy is not being taught as much as it should be. In 2015, the Canadian Science Policy Centre recognized the urgent need for a comprehensive and accessible curriculum, recommending that the Canadian federal government create a digital literacy strategy that is inclusive for all students and provide training for education. However, three years later, there’s still no blanket curriculum in Canada, or the U.S. for that matter. This is clearly a complicated and ever-evolving field — hence why federal governments have yet to land on a consensus. But one thing is clear: we should all be doing more to teach our kids about digital literacy.

Photo Credits: fotosparrow / Shutterstock Inc., AlesiaKan / Shutterstock Inc., Syda Productions / Shutterstock Inc., BigTunaOnline / Shutterstock Inc.

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