Now more than ever, students wield powerful tools in the classroom. Smartphones, social media and impressive software provide the opportunity to perfect basic skills while opening the door to a world of opportunity. As Bill Gates once put it, “the internet is becoming the town square of the global village of tomorrow.”
Still, today’s digital landscape has proven to cultivate hate and violence when improperly consumed. Ethnic attacks online have sparked riots in Myanmar, politically-charged Facebook advertisements from foreign entities have sowed discord in the United States, and students are being swept up in phishing attacks, among other harmful ploys that can hinder their education or financial well-being. While the producers of these schemes and disinformation efforts should certainly be held responsible, educators and community leaders have a duty to equip our neighborhoods with the skills to detect fraudulent information.
According to a 2016 study by Stanford University, young people in America, also known as digital natives, possess media literacy skills that are less than desirable. Most middle schoolers are unaware of the difference between sponsored content and news stories, a dilemma that could hinder their decision-making skills or perspective on certain issues. High schoolers are unable to differentiate reputable news sources from fake ones, and college students are ignorant to bias from advocacy groups. The generations that have been raised by technology now face too much information and cannot sort the good from the bad.
Global data points to a false confidence of skills among today’s students. While 89 percent of students report feeling comfortable with their computer and information literacy level, only two percent actually demonstrate critical thinking when presented false information online, according to a recent study by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement. Youth in the United States spend more than ten hours each day consuming media, so why can’t they detect disinformation?
Most of the time, children use technology for entertainment. At home, a computer serves the same purpose of a television thirty years ago. In fact, the only students exhibiting behaviors that extend beyond general media consumption are typically children of parents who hold graduate degrees, according to a 2008 study. This finding paints a picture of inequity, prompting underserved students to rely on teachers and community leaders for digital education.
Currently, many schools don’t have the resources to produce graduates who are media literate. In a survey of educators earlier this year, the National Association for Media Literacy Education found that nearly half of teachers feel that competing curricular requirements and a lack of time prevent them from covering digital skills in the classroom. This sentiment should compel policymakers to pour resources into media literacy and encourage community leaders to incorporate the subject into their programs.
Thanks to pressure from grassroots advocacy groups, states including California, Massachusetts and Washington have passed legislation supporting media education in their schools. Federal lawmakers are beginning to tackle the issue, too. Currently, bills that would fund institutions teaching media literacy and digital citizenship are being explored in the House and Senate. These efforts are a step in the right direction, toward a more informed country. But there’s much more to be done.
At the highest level, we should expect the White House to campaign for a media literate society by asking Congress to support legislation that teaches digital citizenship and literacy. At the very least, we should demand it respect legitimate media sources and those who consume the news. Congress should grant resources to summer learning programs and volunteer groups who teach media skills outside of the classroom.
There’s a role for many agencies in this crusade, too. The Department of Education can become involved, developing an online assessment to measure media literacy, as well as a resource database for educators seeking assistance. The Federal Communications Commission can encourage the entertainment industry to partner with education leaders to create a campaign about online information.
On a more local level, state governments should invest in media education for their teachers, most of whom are also learning these skills for the first time. Community centers like libraries and museums play an important role, too; their outreach programs can be catalysts for change across generations. Partnerships between the entertainment and education industries or among corporations and community programs will prove to be successful by sharing resources and bringing people together.
It’s important to note that media education is one of the few solutions to disinformation that strongly upholds the first amendment. Rather than combatting the issue by prohibiting certain speech or sources, it empowers the consumer. While efforts to regulate online speech appeal to some, the campaign for media literacy is one everybody should get behind.
Our country’s youth, especially those raised in communities where fabricated news stories are shared more than those by the New York Times or the Washington Post, should want nothing more than to see a media literate America. A country where accurate information thrives is one where democracy flourishes. But it takes more than a few drivers of change or government mandates. It takes a village.
Taylor Fennell is a fall intern at Bose Public Affairs and a telecommunication and media studies junior at Texas A&M University. She has served as a writer and editor for the Texas A&M student newspaper and looks to create change through a career in education, environmental and economic development.