Digital Media Literacy: What Teachers Need To Know
The Classroom

Digital Media Literacy: What Teachers Need To Know

Tara Shanley
Jun 28, 2024

Our students live in the most digitally connected age in history. Statistics show that, on average, Americans consume about 473 minutes—or about 7.9 hours—of media each day. New apps, platforms, or inventions like AI have radically changed how students receive information, share it, and interact with it inside and outside the classroom. 

In this article, we’re looking at what educators need to know about digital media literacy and how to incorporate it into their lessons.

What is digital media literacy?

Digital media literacy is the ability to responsibly access, use, and create electronic media. Some educators also call it online critical thinking skills. According to the Department of Homeland Security, digital media literacy lessons often address three types of issues that can arise with online content. They include:

  • Disinformation: Content created deliberately to mislead, harm, or manipulate people

  • Malinformation: Content based on facts but purposely taken out of context to mislead, harm, or manipulate people.

  • Misinformation: False information that wasn’t created or shared with bad intentions.

Students need to be aware of these three categories of content and what to do if they encounter them while online.

4 actions of digital media literacy

To thrive in the digital age, students need to know how to interact with virtual media. Canada’s Centre for Digital Media Literacy identified that they need to know how to access digital content, use digital tools, understand information presented in digital formats, and engage with it responsibly. We can look deeper into what each of these actions means to understand how to shape digital media literacy lessons for students.

1. Access

Access refers to the methods students use to get the digital media they want or need to consume. Access can include:

  • Having the right devices for digital connection.

  • Creating accounts on social media platforms.

  • Subscribing to news sites or streaming services.

  • Having a reliable internet connection.

In school, educators can often control these factors. They can provide devices and an internet connection, buy or subscribe to vetted platforms and services, and create accounts for all students. Access can become a problem when students leave the classroom for breaks or over the summer where they may not have the same accommodations at home.

2. Use

Accessing digital content isn’t enough. Students also need to know how to use the tools that help them gain access to content. Today, technology education for students often begins at home. Children as young as toddlers have some access to tech devices, like televisions, tablets, or smartphones.

In school, you can scaffold those early technology skills that students learn at home to the tools and platforms used at school. These lessons may include how to:

  • Create accounts and passwords.

  • Log into an account or device using a password.

  • Use search engines to find information.

  • Select and use apps and platforms that further their learning.

3. Understand

Once students can use the technology to access a piece of digital media, they have to be able to think critically about the content and messages they encounter. Understanding content is arguably one of the most important parts of digital media literacy and it’s always ongoing. It’s something even adults navigate.

We can encourage students to validate sources and weed out misinformation, malinformation, and disinformation to better understand the content they consume. The six steps to teach them to validate an online source include:

  1. Review the publisher: Who published this content? Is it a reputable news source or a trusted publication?

  2. Look for validating cues: Check the site’s name, logo, and “about us” information to verify you’re on a legitimate website.

  3. Find the author: Most trusted content has an author byline. You can search to verify their credentials and expertise on the topic.

  4. Inspect the URL: Spammy or harmful websites often imitate legitimate ones. Inspect the URL for misspellings or additional characters after the top-level domain of .com, .org, .net, .gov, or .edu.

  5. Look for spelling and grammar mistakes: Websites with misspelled words, poor grammar, excessive punctuation, or overuse of all caps may be spam.

  6. Find related content: Look for information from other reputable sources on the same topic. Can they validate (or refute) the information in the original source?

4. Engage

Finally, students must learn how to engage with digital media. Unlike print or passive media, digital media is often interactive. You can share, comment, remix, and do so much more with digital content. 

With engagement comes responsibility. There are rules and expectations for how to behave online, such as being respectful when commenting and only sharing content that isn’t dangerous, malicious, or spammy. Some ways you can get students thinking about how they engage with content include:

  • Encouraging them to think before they share content.

  • Talking about cyberbullying and respectful comments.

  • Looking at copyright laws and best practices for remixing and using other people’s content.

Why is digital media literacy important?

Today’s students have access to more media than generations before. The creation and rise of social media opened the doors for anyone anywhere to create content. This created a breeding ground for potential misinformation. Especially for topics that deal with money, physical and mental health, the government, and safety, misinformation can have serious consequences. It can undermine people’s trust in each other, our public systems, and the world at large. 

As teachers, we have a responsibility to try to combat those things by educating our students on how to find, share, and trust factual information online. Tools like our elementary, middle, and high school social media text sets, part of Newsela’s SEL collection, can help you teach students how to navigate social media positively and use it responsibly.

These skills are so important that some primary, secondary, and post-secondary institutions require students to take digital media literacy courses to graduate.

How is digital media literacy different from media literacy?

Digital media literacy is an extension of media literacy. Media literacy is the ability to consume and think critically about content and messages presented in mass media to determine their purpose or credibility.

Evaluating traditional media may include non-digital content like newspapers, or books. It may also include digital content that isn’t immediately interactive, like watching a television show or listening to music. In digital media, almost all the content is dynamic and interactive. Accessing and engaging with it requires more skills than just thinking critically about the messaging, though that’s still a large part of the lessons.

Our Understanding Multimedia text set has the resources you need to help students practice interpreting and analyzing all types of multimedia content—like texts, videos, graphs, charts, and more. Each piece of content has a multiple-choice quiz that helps assess students on this skill.

How is digital media literacy different from digital citizenship?

Digital media literacy and digital citizenship aren’t the same things. They’re interrelated disciplines that focus on keeping students smart, safe, and respectful in digital spaces. Digital media literacy primarily focuses on how to interact with content online. Digital citizenship focuses on how to interact with other people in digital spaces, discussing topics like:

  • Stranger danger on the Internet

  • Being respectful in comments

  • Cyberbullying

  • Protecting your accounts and passwords

  • Learning about tech devices, apps, platforms, and software

The term digital citizenship implies that all Internet and technology users are members or citizens of the same online community. Just like we cover citizenship in social studies classes, we teach digital citizenship to help students learn how to interact with people in those online communities. Digital literacy is part of this because students need to learn how to respectfully and ethically share content and information in these spaces.

Our ELA Resources for Digital Citizenship text sets and media literacy and digital citizenship videos help you cover media literacy and digital citizenship together in your classroom. Choose from content on AI and cheating, cyberbullying, and specific lesson sets for each middle school grade on how to bring media literacy and digital citizenship together. 

How does AI affect digital media literacy?

AI is the new frontier for all types of content creation. It’s everywhere, from search engines to social media, and even your educator tools. While AI has many benefits, one downside is that it can produce inaccurate or sometimes even fabricated information. 

A 2019 Digital Inquiry Group study, conducted before widespread AI technology launches, tested high school students’ abilities to distinguish between real and fake news articles and sources. The majority of them couldn’t do it. Now with AI, where all programs don’t have to cite their sources or provide proof for their answers, things can get even more complicated for students.

AI isn’t a person. It can’t distinguish fact from fiction. It can only spit out what it’s “taught” from manual input or scraping the internet for data. When programmers, spammy websites, or creators with bad intentions “teach” AI disinformation, it can fuel problems students already have in distinguishing fact from fiction.

To support students in these challenges, educators should be more intentional in teaching about AI and the best ways to use it. Even though you’re likely still learning these things yourself, it’s important to incorporate teaching about AI, its benefits, and its downfalls in your lessons.

When we address and set best practices for how to use AI, we can help students become smarter about using the tool. We can teach them how to spot hallucinations and disinformation, and when they need to do more research to find out whether they can trust what AI tells them.

Teaching digital media literacy with Newsela

With Newsela ELA, you can teach students how to interpret all types of digital media using a variety of relevant, real-world content. Our texts and videos allow students to engage with a variety of content types adapted from vetted publishers and trustworthy sources. With embedded formative assessments in each piece of content, you can check for understanding and test students’ proficiency with these skills. Our ELA Standards and Skills collection has additional resources that make adding media literacy lessons to your classroom even easier.

Plus, for Newsela Social Studies subscribers, you get access to our Digital Citizenship and Media Literacy course for middle schoolers with units for grades 6-8.

Not a Newsela customer yet? You can sign up for Newsela Lite for free and get access to content and skill-building scaffolds you need to add digital media literacy lessons to your daily instruction.

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