Kids Are Flooded with Social Media and News. Some States Want Them to Question It
Kids are flooded with social media and news. Some states want to help them question it
Media literacy classes have attracted bipartisan support, but some critics see a “woke” agenda
Many kids are not equipped to deal with misinformation on social media. (Tim Robberts/Getty Images)
Young people may be digital natives, but many of them aren’t equipped to deal with the increasing onslaught of disinformation and deepfakes appearing in their social media feeds.
A growing number of states think they have an antidote: media literacy education.
The goal of media literacy, sometimes called digital citizenship or information literacy, is to help students think critically about the news that is presented to them. Media-literate students also should be able to separate fact from fiction in political messaging, advertisements, television shows and social media posts.
Perhaps most importantly, supporters say, young people should be able to infer why someone posted an Instagram reel or TikTok video, and to weigh the potential consequences of spreading it around.
Over the past five years, states including California, Delaware, Illinois, New Jersey and Texas have enacted laws that require public school students to learn media literacy during their time in school. Despite outside criticism from some conservative scholars, all passed with bipartisan support.
“As technology changes, society has to change, and a big part of that is education changing,” said California Assemblymember Marc Berman, a Democrat who last year sponsored his state’s new law.
Berman pointed to the 2021 assault on the U.S. Capitol, fueled by the lie that Donald Trump won the 2020 election, as well as anti-vaccination conspiracy theories and Holocaust denialism as the consequences of a lack of media literacy.
But encouraging media literacy in an increasingly polarized political environment will be a “messy” challenge, said Paul Mihailidis, a professor of civic media and journalism at Emerson College in Boston.
“It’s not a very apolitical thing,” Mihailidis said. “When you teach people how to spot disinformation and how to navigate different online spaces, inevitably that wades into people looking at certain content one way and certain content another way.”
California’s law calls on the state’s top education authorities to include media literacy in curriculums for the four core subjects — English, science, math and social studies — when the state next updates them in the coming years and pays for the work.
Berman acknowledged that California’s $38 billion budget shortfall could complicate efforts to fully fund media literacy programs, while asserting that doing so is “absolutely something that we need.”
Young people have grown up with social media, but it is evolving with the spread of misinformation and disinformation — and artificial intelligence has the potential to make it even worse, said Alvin Lee, a junior at Stanford University and executive director of the student advocacy group GENup, which pushed for the California measure.
“It’s not just about understanding what is not true or true on social media,” said Lee, who is studying political science and wants to work in education policy. “It’s about being a literate citizen.”
But some Republican lawmakers and conservative thinkers say the media literacy bills coming out of state legislatures are vague and promote “woke” ideologies, pointing to some suggested curriculums that advocate for a more equitable and inclusive society. They worry that some of the measures will undermine parents’ ability to instill their values in their children.
“Critical media literacy seeks to undermine what it sees as the dominant institutions of Western capitalist society,” John D. Sailer, a senior fellow at the National Association of Scholars, a conservative think tank, wrote in City Journal in 2021. “Changing society is a clear goal.”
Washington state lawmakers are likely to pass bipartisan legislation this year that would send money to schools so they can evaluate and improve existing media literacy courses. The exact amount would be decided later.
Since a law was enacted in 2016, Washington state schools have embedded media literacy across curriculums. If passed, this latest measure would boost that education, said Democratic state Sen. Marko Liias, one of the co-sponsors of the bill, which passed the state Senate last March.
The bill would set up grants for teachers to receive training in media literacy; the state House is set to debate it in the coming months. As in other states, the bill in Washington has enjoyed strong bipartisan support.
“This has been an effort where Democrats and Republicans have come together to say, ‘We need to make sure students are better prepared for the future of technology and our information landscape,’” Liias said. “That’s been really important for us in the state to keep making progress.”
Only four of the state Senate’s 20 Republican members voted against the measure. One of the dissenters, state Sen. Jim McCune, said the bill leaves too many unanswered questions.
“It’s another mandate on education,” McCune told Stateline. “Most people learn media literacy in their life, but the bill is very vague about what they’re going to teach. Schools already are failing across the state of Washington.”
If students need help recognizing disinformation online, they should ask their parents, McCune added.
But that misses the point of media literacy education, said Erin McNeill, CEO and founder of Media Literacy Now, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit that has pushed state legislatures to boost mandates and funding for the effort.
“Media literacy is about learning the questions to ask; it’s never about telling students which is the right source,” she said. “They’re not gaining any skills that way.”
At least 19 states have some media literacy education in their public schools, according to her group. There are active bills in Indiana, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Hampshire and Oklahoma, with both Republican and Democratic sponsors.
Media literacy education in practice
When Saba Presley’s middle school students learn the electromagnetic spectrum in her mixed-grade science class in Albuquerque, New Mexico, she weaves in media literacy lessons.
As the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students at Mountain Mahogany Community School learn different wavelengths, Presley asks them to simultaneously examine persuasion techniques that the news media uses to engage consumers. Then, using mnemonic devices students created to remember the spectrum between gamma and radio waves, they make posters and advertisements to convince their peers that their memory method is the best.
On one poster, for example, a student capitalizes the first letter of different wavelengths: “Gentlefolks, eXcessive Usage of Vegemite Is Majorly Robotic.” The poster adds at the bottom, “The best mnemonic device to remember electromagnetic wavelengths, unless you’re Australian.” The poster also shows a robot spreading vegemite on toast.
The lesson is a hit with students, Presley said.
“If you teach students how these manipulation tactics or persuasion tactics are used in media, and teach them how to use them, then they’re going to be able to have their eye out for them,” Presley said. “It’s not just understanding the information. It’s being a skeptic.”
Over her six years of teaching science to middle school students, she has noticed their media engagement skyrocket. But, she said, they are becoming “passive consumers,” taking in what they see on TikTok or a Google search as truth without thinking about the creator, the intended audience and how the creator might benefit from convincing them.
Presley created her lesson plan after taking a seven-month professional development course provided by a company called Media Savvy Citizens in 2022, which was offered to middle school teachers throughout New Mexico. The course encouraged teachers to integrate media literacy into existing curriculum, instead of it being a stand-alone course.
Presley hesitated, though, when asked whether media literacy education should be mandatory. If New Mexico were to someday require media literacy, teachers should be given in-depth training and resources to integrate those lessons effectively; they’re already asked to do so much, she said.
Indeed, a paper published in 2021 by the Rand Corporation found that while media literacy is taught in most schools nationwide, the instruction is uneven and “diverges considerably” among classrooms. Teachers also reported they often lacked instructional resources and training.
Implementation has been scattershot, which can contribute to inequities in what students are taught, especially in high-poverty schools, said Alice Huguet, a policy researcher at the Rand Corporation and one of the paper’s authors. Getting legislation on the books is only the beginning; implementation can make or break any policy.
“Even within the same states, we saw that teachers had very different experiences with support for teaching media literacy,” Huguet wrote in an email. “While I absolutely think that education should be tailored to context to an extent, leaving an important subject like this completely open to interpretation — or to not being delivered at all — is risky.”
In Illinois, every high school student must take media literacy lessons. But they can come in many different forms, said Yonty Friesem, an associate professor of communications at Columbia College Chicago, part of a team of educators that developed the media literacy resources and curriculum for Illinois high schools.
He pointed to examples throughout the state, including one teacher who examines the history of hip-hop music and has students evaluate rap from the 1980s and compare it to what they listen to now. Another teacher asks her science students to look at who wrote an experiment’s instructions and evaluate the intended audience.
“Since we’re using media in every part of our life, it shouldn’t be separated,” Friesem said. “We need to have those literacy skills across disciplines.”
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