We live in an age of digital citizenship. By age 11, more than half of all U.S. children have their own smartphones, and by age 12 56% of these youths have their own social media accounts. Based on those statistics, it's no wonder that parents look to their children who have grown up with these devices in their hands for help and advice regarding their smartphones, iPads and laptops.

That's why it's not just important, but crucial, to teach media literacy in schools. If children are expected to take on a world that relies and revolves around so much technology, they should have an understanding of how to appropriately and properly use it. Knowledge of media literacy not only empowers students to critically analyze media, but it teaches them to make informed decisions, identify misinformation, and become responsible citizens in real life and online.

So what is media literacy and why do we need it?

The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) defines media literacy as "the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create and act using all forms of communication. It is a broadened definition of literacy that includes media beyond text and promotes curiosity about the media we consume and create."

In other words, it provides us with the skills necessary to comprehend the messages we receive. Being literate in a media age requires critical thinking skills that empower us as we make decisions.

The study "Impact of media literacy education on knowledge and behavioral intention of adolescents in dealing with media messages according to Stages of Change" published by the National Library of Medicine found that mass media influences the health behaviors of adolescents.

"Evidence shows that traditional strategies such as censorship or limitation are no longer efficient; therefore, teaching media literacy is the best way to protect adolescents from harmful effects," the study states.

Despite these findings, only four states — Delaware, New Jersey, Texas and most recently California — have enacted mandatory media literacy instruction for students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

"Media literacy is an essential set of skills we should be building into our curricula earlier than we currently do," said Dr. Cliff Lampe, professor of information and associate dean for Academic Affairs in the School of Information at the University of Michigan, in an interview with Forbes earlier this year. "People tend to assume that young folks who are 'born digital' have all of the skills they need to be able to navigate the online world and determine what is true or not. While they may have more skills than others, the research shows that they also need explicit training in media literacy to be able to really use these tools safely and effectively."

It's especially important when misinformation is able to spread at lightning-fast speed thanks to AI and social media sites like TikTok. In fact, more Americans are turning to TikTok for news than ever before. According to Pew Research Study, one-third of people under 30 regularly scroll the app for news, up 255% since 2020.

Common sense education: Spreading the knowledge

So how can we help prepare these younger generations? Read on for examples, topics and tips on how to get started with teaching news and media literacy in the classroom:

To start, your students should always ask themselves these six questions when examining a piece of media:

  • Who made this?
  • Who is the target audience?
  • Who paid for this? Or who gets paid if you click on this?
  • Who might benefit or be harmed by this message?
  • What is left out of this message that might be important?
  • Is this piece of media valid, credible and reliable?

News and media content should be transparent, valid, credible, objective, fair and balanced. But what do these key terms actually mean?

  • Transparency. Do the news sources clearly mark opinion as opinion, disclose conflicts of interest, indicate where information was obtained and how it was verified, and provide direct links to sources?
  • Validity and Credibility. Is the news from reporters who have been educated in not only the topic at hand, but in ethical journalism and media production?
  • Objective and Balanced. Is the piece of media informing the audience on a topic, or promoting said topic? Is it objective, fair and balanced, portraying issues and events in a neutral and unbiased manner, regardless of the writer's opinion or personal beliefs?

In the digital-first, social media-heavy landscape we are currently living in, make sure to focus on how to identify clickbait headlines.

Content is frequently designed to be a fabrication or half-truth that is sensationalized to grab eyeballs and pique interest. "Clickbait," as it's now known as, helps content go viral, and readers or viewers can inadvertently become super-spreaders of misinformation, especially on social media.

Teach how to evaluate website credibility and bias. There are certain signs to look for when evaluating online news sources:

  • Is the URL secure (HTTPS)?
  • Always try to find an "About Us" page. How detailed is it, and are there any red flags?
  • Also look for the "Contact Us" page. Is it easy to get in touch with the authors?
  • Is the web page or article filled with grammatical errors and typos?
  • Is the page riddled with advertisements or has a layout that is hard to follow?

Encourage staying informed and on top of current events, all while using a variety of sources, publications and websites.

It is important for students to exercise how and where they read the news. Include current events into your teaching to help students develop a real-world perspective on issues and better understand how their studies apply to life outside the school's walls. Consuming media from a variety of sources will ensure the reader or viewer is getting several angles and perspectives on a topic, and will help verify that the news they are consuming is real. If only one source is reporting on a topic, that can raise a red flag, but if several are publishing stories it can confirm that the topic at hand is verifiable.

Make sure to find age-appropriate content.

Depending on the age group you are teaching, certain publications, outlets and varying forms of media may not be appropriate or accessible. Check out the Best News Sources for Kids resource from Common Sense Media to find a list of outlets suitable for all ages.

Looking ahead

The skills your students build and the knowledge they acquire will continue to grow as they're exposed to different media. Encourage them to always be curious and skeptical about what they are reading; media literacy is an ongoing critical thinking exercise as the content we consume continues to change and evolve.

Check out these additional resources to use when researching and teaching media literacy: