Digital natives: Time for media literacy to be back in the spotlight?

Digital natives: Time for media literacy to be back in the spotlight?

Is it time for media literacy to be back in the spotlight?

The widespread availability of digital technology has not brought into being a new species of youth by some kind of technological determinism. Other forces have contributed to change – changing family life, culture, society and notions of childhood. Young people are getting older younger while staying younger longer and amidst all these contradictory tensions – parental fears about the open streets and societies’ blame for failing families – the new media seem like a solution to many problems. (Livingstone: 2002).

The ever-expanding media universe has given rise to adult anxieties about childhood, Sonia Livingstone argued, in the pre-social media days of her 2002 report Young People and New Media. She said that adult reflections on changes in childhood wrought by new media are frequently vented in moral panic stories in the mainstream media. They often concern internet safety, access to pornography, violence in gaming as well as issues about the solitary nature of much online activity. However that was before the explosion of children in western countries having their own mobile phones, the rise of online bullying and more recent issues of information being accessed via social networks.

Last month a Stanford University report hit one such moral panic button when it was released in the media. In Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning the November-published study provided scary data that digital natives, those young people whose lives have been immersed in digital media – and in social media, in particular – are not all that media savvy.

At all levels researched, middle school, high school and college-level in the USA the Standford report said: “Overall, young people’s ability to reason about the information on the Internet can be summed up in one word: bleak.

When it comes to separating news from advertising “news” stories, detecting political or other biases or querying claims on social media, the students weren’t all that clued-in.

“Our ‘digital natives’ may be able to flit between Facebook and Twitter while simultaneously uploading a selfie to Instagram and texting a friend. But when it comes to evaluating information that flows through social media channels, they are easily duped.”

The Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) research project, which lasted 18 months, started in January 2015 long before 2016’s fake news concerns hit the headlines. The research aimed to test the civic online reasoning of young people in ascertaining the credibility of information that permeates their smartphones, tablets and computers.

 Digital natives: Time for media literacy to be back in the spotlight?

The research surveyed three educational groups – middle schoolers (aged 11-14), high schoolers (aged 15-18) and college students (aged 18-22). They conducted an internet home page analysis to distinguish news from ads, evaluated evidence based on an image and caption and another study on social media claims. All three were accompanies by a rubric to rate the critical thinking skills of 7,804 young people across 12 states.

Rather ominously, kids from across the socio-economic spectrum responded in more or less the same way, as the report says:

“Our sites for field testing included under-resourced, inner-city schools in Los Angeles and well-resourced schools in suburbs outside of Minneapolis. Our college assessments, which focused on open web searches, were administered online at six different universities that ranged from Stanford, an institution that rejects 94% of its applicants, to large state universities that admit the majority of students who apply.

 Digital natives: Time for media literacy to be back in the spotlight?

The Standford study looked at media literacy and the three sets of students. Media literacy is defined as “the ability to access, analyse, evaluate, and create media. Media literate youth and adults are better able to understand the complex messages we receive from television, radio, Internet, newspapers, magazines, books, billboards, video games, music, and all other forms of media.”

These media literacy understandings were tested by researching the students’ ability to judge Facebook and Twitter feeds, comments left on forums or news sites, blogposts, photographs and other digital messages that are shared daily. In the study design they sought advice from teachers, university staff, librarians and news experts to help them come up with 15 age-appropriate tests – five each for middle school, high school and college levels.

“In every case and at every level, we were taken aback by students’ lack of preparation.” In middle school they tested basic skills, such as the trustworthiness of different tweets or articles. In one test they showed the following Imgur image and collected responses to the question “Does this post provide strong evidence about the conditions near the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant? Explain your reasoning.”

 Digital natives: Time for media literacy to be back in the spotlight?

What they found shocked them. They piloted the study across 454 high school students and the final study group consisted of 170 high school students. “By and large, students across grade levels were captivated by the photograph and relied on it to evaluate the trustworthiness of the post. They ignored key details, such as the source of the photo. Less than 20% of students constructed “Mastery” responses, or responses that questioned the source of the post or the source of the photo.

“On the other hand, nearly 40% of students argued that the post provided strong evidence because it presented pictorial evidence about conditions near the power plant. A quarter of the students argued that the post did not provide strong evidence, but only because it showed flowers and not other plants or animals that may have been affected by the nuclear radiation.”

If that weren’t enough to cause a panic then the report found in relation to topical political issues in the media things were even worse: “Making sense of search results is even more challenging with politically charged topics,” the researchers said.

“But in every case and at every level, we were taken aback by students’ lack of preparation. For every challenge facing this nation, there are scores of websites pretending to be something they are not. Ordinary people once relied on publishers, editors, and subject matter experts to vet the information they consumed. But on the unregulated Internet, all bets are off. Michael Lynch, a philosopher who studies technological change, observed that the Internet is “both the world’s best fact checker and the world’s best bias confirmer – often at the same time.

“Never have we had so much information at our fingertips. Whether this bounty will make us smarter and better informed or more ignorant and narrow-minded will depend on our awareness of this problem and our educational response to it. At present, we worry that democracy is threatened by the ease at which disinformation about civic issues is allowed to spread and flourish.

The Californian report’s findings places the Media Literacy (ML) or Media & Information Literacy (MIL) issue back in the educational spotlight in western countries at least. A Cinderella subject by comparison with coding or other digital interventions on the school curriculum it has fallen off the agenda  recently though the European Union initiated a media literacy scheme for pilot projects with a e250,000 budget in August 2016 . Which isn’t a lot of money for projects that promote critical thinking and media literacy in a union that covers 27 member countries and a lot of digital natives.

Stanford education professor Sam Wineburg said the research aims to help educators use the study tasks to track student understanding and to adjust instruction. “As recent headlines demonstrate, this work is more important now than ever,” Mr Wineburg said. “In the coming months, we look forward to sharing our assessments and working with educators to create materials that will help young people navigate the sea of disinformation they encounter online.”

 Young People and New Media

Although our tasks could be used in a variety of ways, we think they are powerful tools for classroom instruction. Rather than simply serving as assessments of learning, they can also be assessments for learning, or what are known as ‘formative assessments’. Teachers can use our tasks to track student understanding and to adjust instruction accordingly. Similarly, teachers can use these exercises as the basis for broader lessons about the skills these tasks measure. We also hope to create accompanying materials that help teachers incorporate these tasks into the flow of classroom instruction,” the report said.

As far back as 2002 Sonia Livingstone argued that adult anxieties and concerns can offer society an opportunity to reflect on changes that are underway in the educational, leisure and family life of younger people. She noted that what is rarely raised during these moral panics is the opportunity they present for parents, in particular, and society, in general, to benefit from the introduction of media education throughout the school curriculum which would introduce the relevant language and critical thinking skills that could aid parents assess the merits of the debates and the subsequent media literacy initiatives.

Livingstone, S. 2003 (reprint). Young People and New Media, Sage: London.

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