Digital citizenship and media literacy

Teaching critical thinking around what we share online ourselves is important, for example, pausing and not just posting something the moment you read it.

In a world where fake news has become the norm, news media literacy and the broader concept of digital citizenship need to be integral parts of the Australian curriculum, Jess Willis writes.

What is media literacy and digital citizenship?

Digital citizenship is a broad term relating to the skills, knowledge and behaviours that people need to be a good or successful citizen in the digital world.

Queensland University of Technology (QUT) Professor Michael Dezuanni describes it by drawing a parallel to citizenship in the ‘offline world’.

“Just as we want to be a good citizen in the offline world, we want to have knowledge and skills to be good citizens in the online world,” Dezuanni said.

“This relates to behaving in positive ways towards other people, it relates to being safe online and it relates to being aware of the kinds of things you should be thinking about to live successfully, or to have successful online interactions with other people.”

Media literacy is an integral aspect of digital citizenship.

“Again, like in the offline world, we need access to good quality information, so that we can make good judgements about how to live our lives; whether that relates to voting for politicians, health information or purchasing decisions,” Dezuanni said.

“If we don’t have access to high-quality, reliable and trustworthy information, then all those things are made more difficult.

“This is why it is imperative we teach young people how to recognise poor quality information, or so-called fake news,“ he said.

Perceptions of news by young people

Digital citizenship and media literacy need to be a priority learning area in the Australian Curriculum as well as individual schools.

We know from research that children and teenagers consume news mainly through family, friends and teachers, that young people have a broader definition of news, and that social media sites will play an increasingly important part in news media literacy.

Dezuanni was part of the research team that investigated how young Australians access, perceive and are affected by news in 2017 and 2020, with some striking key findings. In the 2020 report, the researchers found:

  • News consumption has become more frequent and more social for young Australians since 2017. Family is the main news source (54 percent); followed by television (36 percent); teachers (33 percent); friends (30 percent); and social media (29 percent). Only 20 percent use a news media source.
  • Social media is being used more regularly for news than in 2017. Teenagers are more likely than children to use social media for news.
  • Nearly half of young people pay little attention or no attention to the source of news stories they find online. Only 36 percent say they know how to tell fake news from real news.
  • Young Australians trust their family more than any news sources; they do not have high levels of trust for news media organisations.
  • News is more distressing and frightening than in 2017, with most young people consuming adult news.
  • Young people do not believe media organisations serve them well but have ideas to make it better.
  • Young Australians said they receive infrequent lessons about how to critique news media. Only about one-fifth said they had lessons to help them work out whether news stories were true and could be trusted

A broader definition of news

Talking about the findings, Dezuanni said the digital world and technologies have definitely changed the types of things we need to focus on when it comes to news information.

“Just as one example, previously we had a relatively straightforward definition of what news was,” he said.

“News was something on the television or in a newspaper or radio news bulletin. Now, when we ask young people about news (in both the 2017 and 2020 surveys) we found they actually have a much broader definition of news.

“We do think this is linked to digital technologies.

“They believe that if they are told some information on a social media site, whether or not it is coming from an official source, they still count that as news.

“So, they might just receive a message from a friend about something going on in the world and they call that news, and they have a tendency to place this in the same bucket as news from a TV station for instance,” he said.

“The other interesting thing that came up in our study is that young people will say they believe and find more trustworthy news that they get from friends and family, more than any other sources, including official news sources.

“This is sort of surprising in some respects, and concerning in some respects, because of course there is no guarantee that what they are being told by family and friends is true or accurate,” he said.

Still merit in editorial process

Dezuanni said one of the things digital media has shown us is that there is still merit in the editorial process of news production and journalistic standards and we should be teaching young people how to question what they see properly.

“It’s not a perfect process. We know that sometimes journalists can be biased in how they write a story, editors can go for a quick headline to attract readers but that could be slightly misleading,” he said.

“Nonetheless, at least in most journalism there is a process of trying to be accurate, of trying to check sources and trying to ensure that sources of information are coming from more than one place.”

However, it’s critical we teach children from a young age how to critique news by checking the sources and veracity of claims as well as understanding bias, agendas and commercial interests of news organisations.

Dezuanni said these concepts can be introduced in primary school. “I think teaching basic verification skills is important – and by that, I mean teaching how to verify if a story is accurate or not,” he said.

“So, if you read a weird headline and think, that sounds interesting but I’m not really sure if that’s true or not, then teach students how to double check to see if the story is coming up on any mainstream sources for instance.

“I would also say teaching critical thinking around what we share online ourselves is important; for example, pausing and not just posting something the moment you read it.

“We need to teach people to ask themselves ‘is this something I really need to repost?’ ‘Is it going to make a positive contribution to the internet?’ Or is it just negativity or something that will cause problems?’” he said.

Dezuanni explained that, generally, it’s also important to teach the concept of algorithmic literacy, as it is expected the percentage of young people accessing news from social media platforms will increase.

However, as a ‘cutting-edge’ issue it is going to be very complex.

“It’s not always clear how an algorithm is working, and technology companies don’t really provide much information on that either, so it can be a challenge to develop resources on.

“It definitely needs to be one of the directions things need to go.

Professional development key

Dezuanni said media literacy has to play an important part in classroom lessons but there are barriers for teachers that need to be resolved.

“We should be seeing more than 20 percent of kids saying that they have studied the news critically – we’d prefer that number to be way higher – and we need teachers to have professional development so they can get their heads around digital platforms, which are very complicated and continually change,” he said.

“That’s a big problem for teachers, they might get their heads around one set of information but then two months later the platform has changed how it does things.”

Michael said many teachers find they need to focus on other areas of the curriculum that are priorities nationally or in their schools.

“We need media literacy to be seen as a higher priority over all and then we need to provide teachers with good-quality professional development with practical examples they can take back to the classroom,” he said.

Some good resources Dezuanni recommends for teachers include:

  • the Alannah and Madeline Foundation website
  • the Media Literacy section on ABC Education
  • the Museum of Australian Democracy resources accompanying the exhibit ‘Truth, Freedom and a Free Press’.

The full 2017 and 2020 reports, along with further research into the news literacy of young people and adults can be found here:

Professor Michael Dezuanni is a digital media and learning researcher with national standing in the field of media literacy education. He also researches children’s participation on digital platforms. He is currently a Program Leader for Digital Inclusion and Participation at QUT’s Digital Media Research Centre. His earliest digital memory is playing Space Invaders at the local corner store.