Linking Media Literacy and Digital Citizenship in the public policy realm

To be a citizen and participate fully, one must be literate. Literacy today means media literacy, which relies on technology, which today is overwhelmingly digital.

By Erin McNeill, president, Media Literacy Now

What was the ethical, safe, and responsible use of Benjamin Franklin’s printing press in his day? Don’t print libel and slander. Publish the best arguments from each point of view. Keep your fingers away from the mechanism.

Media messages are always delivered by some form of technology, whether it’s charcoal on the cave wall, a pen, a lute, a radio, or an iPhone 6. Responsible, ethical and safe use of the technology used to create media is important, because media can be powerful. Ben Franklin’s printing press helped launch a revolution.

Therefore, the media literacy movement has always been about the technology, because the way technology delivers a message makes a difference in the impact of that message. Radio and printing presses vastly increased the reach of media from the individual to a mass audience. Internet-enabled social media again increases the potential reach of a message exponentially, and allows each individual access to that mass audience in an unprecedented way, with potentially life-changing consequences. The digital citizenship movement recognizes the transformative quality of this new level of global media reach.

I’ve been thinking lately about the connection between media literacy and digital citizenship as Media Literacy Now seeks to raise the level of public policy discourse on media, technology, and literacy. We’ve seen that the term “digital citizenship” has resonance among policy makers, while the closely connected term “media literacy” is apparently less accessible.

Here I want to explore how media literacy and digital citizenship are fundamentally integrated pursuits, while also examining the gaps between them and what each adds to the conversation.

Media literacy is a skill to enable critical thinking around media messages, especially those produced by corporations and ideological groups for a mass audience, to gain profit or power. Media Literacy is a pedagogy – a method of teaching. Digital citizenship refers to safe, responsible, ethical use of the digital media technologies that have become so widely accessible. Digital citizenship is the goal – a digital citizen has the literacy skills to effectively and thoughtfully use the digital tools that are now the primary means of media creation.

Media literacy proponents start from the viewpoint that media are powerful, pervasive, and expanding, and that students need the critical thinking and modern literacy skills to productively participate in today’s global media environment. Digital citizenship proponents see new technologies that deliver media as a game changer that require an urgent response so that young people can participate.

Digital citizenship is about how we live in this new information age where all knowledge is available at our fingertips at all times, and where we can reach and talk to almost anyone on earth at any time. It’s an exciting, but also fraught, time. We need to be developing new means and skills and guidelines of how to operate in this new world. That’s digital citizenship. It’s about how we as individuals act in this environment.

In media literacy education, we look at how media affect our lives in all its forms, how media shape our society, culture, attitudes, beliefs. Media literacy is literacy in the 21st century – learning to read and interpret and create messages – with a focus on the systems that deliver the messages.

So let’s consider how these two ideas come together when a social media user posts a picture online. When we create media with digital technologies, we do so in a context of mass media messages created by well-funded ideological groups and corporations. Media literacy skills ensure that we are aware of that context, that we have applied critical thinking skills to the messages before creating our own, and that we are not simply perpetuating commercial messages that tell us what we should be or think. A good digital citizen will ask: What is the message that picture sends about the person who created it? And is the message reflective or his or her own story, or does it merely perpetuate a message created by others for their own profit or power?

As we consider what each of these concepts are and how they intersect, it might be instructive to consider what is left out of each term. In most cases, what appears to be excluded is not.

Digital citizenship appears to leave out messages that are delivered in non-digital form – packaging, magazines, the ads on school buses, billboards, radio. These media can be the primary vehicles for perpetuating the sexism, racism, materialism, and other negative stories that we seek to counter with media literacy. However, most media today originate in digital form. Most photographs are taken with a digital device and even if they appear in print, such as a news photograph in a newspaper, they still end up online to be shared far more widely.

What part of digital citizenship is left out of media literacy? Perhaps an understanding of how data are collected and used, with a focus on data privacy and the systems of surveillance. However, surveillance technology relies on the language of coding, and produces media in the form of data. The coding that goes into virtual reality or robotics, too, is a language that requires a modern kind of literacy to analyze and create.

On the flip side, if we permanently link these two terms in the public policy domain, what can each add? Both media literacy and digital citizenship are a frame of reference, an attitude, and an approach to learning that complement each other.

Media literacy education develops the skills to critically examine the corporate and ideological media makers, and the digital tool makers. The method of inquiry-based learning and critical thinking is explicitly included, and comes backed by evidence-based curriculum and a long history as an internationally recognized field of academic study.

Digital citizenship education ensures we’re having essential conversations about technology advances that enable virtual reality, robotics, mass surveillance, artificial intelligence, and unknown future innovations, and their potential positive and negative impact on us.

My conclusion: Media literacy and digital citizenship must go together in any discussion on education policy.

Literacy is essential to citizenship so that all may know and practice their rights and responsibilities as members of a society. Certainly most would agree that literacy is essential to citizenship in a democracy. Today then, in a global media world, media literacy is essential to global citizenship. Because literacy today takes place in a digital media world, such global citizenship is the same as digital citizenship.

(Updated 6/17/16 to include references to ideological as well as corporate messages.)



2016-11-29T16:59:56+00:00June 15th, 2016|News, Stories|17 Comments


  1. Frank W Baker June 15, 2016 at 4:24 pm

    ! would quibble a bit with the notion that media literacy relies on technology. But I get where you’re coming from.
    The problem from my POV is that the advocates of digital citizenship (like those of information literacy) don’t always recognize THE MEDIA as a legitimate medium to be studied or analyzed in schools. You don’t mention Common Core, which is the law now in some 43 states. And it certainly does a dis-service to media literacy education.

    The challenge I believe is how to educate the UNEDUCATED as to what media literacy is (and what it isn’t) and to PERSUADE those in power (in education) that we need to have strong media education in our schools.

    We’re racing ahead in education in the US…with lots of emphasis on technology…coding for example….and far too little conversations about RE-ENGAGING kids in critical thinking and critical viewing skills.

  2. Denise DeRosa June 16, 2016 at 7:44 am

    I agree, that these policies do indeed need to be thought about together. It’s interesting to discuss the technological advances that come with all media forms (print, film, radio, digital, etc). It is an important part of studies that gets overlooked. I think students need to understand how technology affects the way we communicate (through which medium) and the way we consume mass or social media messages. And also how are these messages are more or less powerful as a result.

  3. Diana Graber June 16, 2016 at 11:03 am

    Erin, this is such a terrific essay on this topic. I believe you hit the nail on the head when you say, “the term ‘digital citizenship’ has resonance among policy makers, while the closely connected term “media literacy” is apparently less accessible.” I find that adults in general get lost in both terms (but more so with ‘media lit’), so I’m glad to see that you outlined so well how they work hand-in-hand. For my own part, I gave up on trying to explain this to adults (well sort of) and decided to double down on the kids by developing and delivering Cyber Civics–which starts out with a whole year of Digital Citizenship lessons, followed by a year of Info Literacy, and ends with a full year of Media Literacy. I’ve observed that kids who get a strong foundation in dig cit and info lit go into media lit with a powerful advantage, they are expert at evaluating media messages because they understand the implications, the tools that created the message (and their possible dangers), the money that paid for the message, etc. I truly wish that it was mandatory for every student to get this deep of an education on the very thing they will use more than anything else (media). Kudos to you and all your good work towards making this happen!

  4. Vanessa Domine June 16, 2016 at 5:41 pm

    I really appreciate you bringing to the foreground the resonance of the terminology “media literacy” with “digital citizenship.” But I am even more excited that this has generated discourse on the topic. In the spirit of civil dissent, I’d like to outline a different perspective.I believe the two sets of terminology are very different in key ways. I see “digital citizenship” as having evolved into a highly politicized terminology that focuses (generally speaking) on protectionist policy and, for the most part, didactic educational practices. There is nothing wrong with this, as long as citizens (and future citizens) understand for what, exactly, they are voting/supporting/teaching/funding. Digital citizenship embodies a particular ideological belief and (the way it has currently gained political and educational momentum) suggests a bureaucratic implementation, especially if we’re talking about P-16 public education. I’m concerned that the by-products of “digital citizenship” are ultimately counter-intuitive to authentically scaffolding both a social and political democracy. In contrast, I see media literacy (similar to my definition of “technology”) as a much broader way of seeing the world (or in this case, a way of seeing through all media forms). In contrast to “digital citizenship,” “media literacy” is political only in the sense that it is not committed to a particular ideology—other than political action itself. For me, the cornerstone for media literacy is inquiry (not the dissemination of a particular, even alternate, ideology). Inquiry can only be fully realized in an environment where there is freedom of speech and thought (and the press). The keystone, then, for media literacy education must be inquiry-based learning/teaching. Sadly, U.S. public schooling (as it was originally designed) is not conducive to media literacy education, as I have depicted it here. However, U.S. schools ARE structured for a top-down (bureaucratic) implementation of “digital citizenship.” This is a fascinating paradox to me. I would like to see a doctoral student or researcher study more deeply the question: Is “digital citizenship” as it is currently operationally defined in the U.S. truly conducive to citizenship? My hypothesis is that it may not be. Don’t misunderstand me: Those who are involved in “digital citizenship” (and collateral) efforts) are good organizations comprised of good people doing good things. At the same time, we must be very clear about what policies and pedagogies are actually being promoted (as with any social and political movement). We also need to be clear about what can(not) be legislated (effectively) in the U.S. This leads me to another interesting question: Can media literacy education be legislated? Fortunately, this question can be answered much sooner than later, thanks to your leadership efforts, Erin, and the work of many others.

  5. C.F. June 17, 2016 at 9:16 am

    Almost every single student I encountered this past school year had a cell phone, an Ipad, or another technological device. It never occurred to me that they needed a lesson on “media literacy” because I witnessed them using their devices without needing my help. The article brings up a valuable point that I have not truly considered – students may know how to superficially use technology, but are we (the educators) teaching students genuine media literacy? Are we teaching students to use the technology in a positive, powerful, meaningful way?
    It is my opinion that the “older generation” of teachers (not all, of course) may shy away from wanting to embrace media literacy because it may seem foreign… we have this assumption that the younger generation already know how to use technology ‘better’ than us, so what can we teach them?

    The article made me consider the importance of teaching our students not only how to appropriately use technology for educational reasons, but how to be digital citizens… this could certainly be tied into an anti-bullying campaign to make it “kid friendly” at the school level. This concept could be taught during K-5 time (I often think that K. is too young for technology, but in reality, this is the direction of our future…) and reinforced over the years… by the time students graduate HS, they should be media literate and digital citizens.

  6. Joni Siani June 17, 2016 at 10:30 am

    Excellent! Media Literacy is the banner to which all of our digital literacy falls under. Media Literacy examines the “shaping effects of media on us as individuals and as a society.” The most important part is teaching the world to respect the powerful influences of all media, particularly now that every one of us is a media maker without any guidelines, restrictions, boundaries and protocol.

    These lessons can be woven into any subject with the common core standards of critical thinking, problem solving etc. It’s also time to include the mental health and well being as part of this conversation. As Common Sense Media just released research saying more than “50% of teens FEEL they’re addicted to their devices…” we also have to believe them by incorporating and carving a path for more authentic connectivity and boundaries throughout our days. MA has not upgraded their Health Strand, which includes stress, anxiety, depression and interpersonal communications since 1999. Yet, how has our world of connectivity changed since then?

    Great comments from all of you! Nice to hear people are committed….and thanks Erin!

  7. Tessa Jolls June 17, 2016 at 11:34 am

    Thanks for this great discussion! These linkages are important to clarify, especially since “digital citizenship” is an outcome that can’t really substitute for media literacy. Media literacy is foundational, and it embraces all forms of media — social media, video, print etc. etc. Media literacy provides a systematic way of describing how media operate as a system, and it is a serious field of intellectual inquiry unto itself, as well as offering a specific pedagogy. Additionally, it has inspired a world-wide movement dedicated to this new way of teaching and learning.

    One of the questions we learn to ask in media literacy is “what is left out of this message?” For me, it’s important to include in this essay the idea that ideology plays an important role in media messages, and for this reason, citizens should understand their relationship with media and also the role that media plays in society, especially in a democracy. Although the commercial implications of media are ever-present, ideology also plays a part in the purpose behind media messages. Sometimes it is a worldview, a religious belief or political rhetoric that we may interrogate through a media literacy approach. In today’s world, it is essential that citizens — whether using digital media or not — are equipped with the know-how and skills they need to discern and to decide and to take action. They need to understand the nature of power, how it’s exercised and how to exert their own power.

    • Erin McNeill June 17, 2016 at 12:15 pm

      Thanks, Tessa – I’ve updated the article to include ideological in addition to corporate messages in several places. There will be another draft in response to the many helpful comments received here and to me personally, but I thought it was particularly important to add this missing piece immediately.

  8. Michelle Ciulla Lipkin June 17, 2016 at 11:41 am

    All my favorite people are commenting on this article! What a great conversation. It’s such an important one especially given the push for digital citizenship legislation. We need comprehensive legislation that takes all these points into consideration. I am so grateful for Erin’s work on this!

  9. R June 17, 2016 at 12:37 pm

    It makes sense. One of the primary goals of education (originally) was educated/literate citizens. Therefore, a primary goal of modern medial literacy should be educated digital citizenship. However, I have not really given the idea of teaching media literacy as a function of creating “good” digital citizens much thought.

    Interestingly, I have been dealing with a GREAT number of academic integrity issues in my high school. Students are “sharing” their work on Google Drive frequently–a form of “collaboration” (has been argued by these students and, often, their parents)–ultimately resulting in one student turning in another’s work as his own. Next year we will be adding a unit in all our English classes (and then in all 9th grade classes in subsequent years) where we SPECIFICALLY review plagiarism and cheating in the digital realm. I guess this would be an example of where we are expanding our medial literacy education to include digital citizenry training.

  10. Mike June 17, 2016 at 1:48 pm

    Having worked in broadcasting for five years, and now working as a school administrator, it never ceases to amaze me what a difference there is between the employees of my small television station and the students (AND STAFF MEMBERS) at my school district when it comes to their understanding of why one should ‘broadcast’ responsibly…at the TV station we knew that what we put out over the airwaves represented our employer, but also represented us, and by-and-large we didn’t want to do anything which made us look foolish, irresponsible, or otherwise inappropriate. I feel that the connection between posting online and broadcasting to the world has never been made for most people who do so, and therefore they do not realize the gravity of their actions. This connection, to me, is at the heart of the definition of “digital citizenship.” If anything, I would like to see courses which explain the power – and pitfalls – of online posting of content made mandatory for public school students…(and perhaps offer adult education sessions for their parents, as well!)

  11. Josh June 17, 2016 at 4:19 pm

    I honestly agree with everything she said. Often we try to band-aid what we can and just keep layering things on top of one another. However, by integrating media literacy and digital citizenship, I feel like we’d be addressing our concerns as a whole. I would add that just as I believe one type of technology isn’t best for K-12 students, I would argue the same. We need to begin teaching different mediums early and through the years build a knowledge foundation for our kids, our society…rather than just having a course or two on the ideas themselves.

  12. Jan June 18, 2016 at 3:17 pm

    I am intrigued by the evolving definitions. Where is Webster when you need him? I feel handicapped not knowing Latin or Greek in which I’m sure there is some classical basis that would add clarity to these terms.
    If all the world is a stage maybe we now have a new audience, actor, playwrite and producer and they are all the same person – a digital citizen.
    In this brave new world where a 7 year old can assume such a multiplicity of roles how does she learn the basics let alone the finer points of communication and creativity to tell her story or contribute value to the whole without learning some rules of play? Are we banking that our children will figure this out their own? Now more than ever before we need to recognize the need to bring those young people, seasoned teachers, new tech savvy teachers, adults, leaders, policy makers, okay, really, all friends, Romans, and countrymen together to contribute to making media literate a rising generation of digital citizens.

  13. David Ryan Polgar June 23, 2016 at 4:24 pm

    I have some good news: we seem to be at a pivotal point where we, as a collective group, can strongly influence how both media literacy and digital citizenship are perceived and delivered. As some of the comments have pointed out, digital citizenship has often been so strongly aligned with online safety in the past that it may have left out crucial aspects of what it means to be a “digital citizen.” At the Digital Citizenship Summit, we purposefully have run with the tagline of “Safe, Savvy, and Ethical use of social media & tech” to better showcase the broadness of being a digital citizen. In addition, the upcoming Digital Citizenship Summit is serving as the kickoff event for US Media Literacy Week (with Michelle @ NAMLE serving as chairperson) to clearly indicate the essential role of media literacy as a building block towards being a digital citizen.

    Vanessa makes an interesting point about the political differences between digital citizenship and media literacy. Personally, I have a concern that if we take the common “watch what you post” refrain (heard in digcit circles) too far it can be stifling. But see–this is EXACTLY why we need a diverse range of thinkers tackling thorny issues. Nothing about digital citizenship as a concept is written in stone–it is evolving with every new participant.

    The Media Literacy and Digital Citizenship efforts should be combined because the end goal is the same: cultivating citizens that are better informed, engaged, and able to apply critical thinking to the world around them. For example, I just read this article today (“Teens are getting almost all of their news from Snapchat and Twitter these days”): Does this fall under digital citizenship or media literacy? It is impossible to have one without the other, and that’s why I am excited to see silos come down and a great cross-pollination of ideas.

    As far as pushing policy goes, it makes sense to combine both digital citizenship and media literacy.

  14. Anne Collier June 29, 2016 at 11:37 am

    Fantastic discussion! Erin, thank you for starting it so eloquently. I’ve been thinking on these things for some time too. Citizenship, digital or otherwise, is a disposition and a practice, I agree, Tessa. Literacy is a TOOL for effective practice and engagement, right? It’s what gets us *to* effective civic engagement, offline or online. As for the online part: To participate effectively – even successfully – in and with today’s very social digital media, it’s only logical that *three* interlaced literacies are needed: media literacy absolutely, for all the reasons you state above, but also social literacy (the competencies taught in social-emotional learning-see and digital literacy (understanding data privacy, digital surveillance, bots, etc., as you point out above, Erin). That’s why the Aspen Task Force on Learning & the Internet stressed all three and called them “the literacies of the digital age” in its 2014 final report (

    But I think Vanessa’s exactly right that “citizenship” has become highly politicized, as operationalized in the US, and is in real danger of being ignored by young citizens because it’s being imposed on them. I mean, we’ve made it a curriculum, right? And teaching is dictating. Literacy skills need to be taught, certainly, but is citizenship to be taught in the usual hierarchical, top-down way in participatory spaces and discourses? Citizenship instruction certainly might include participatory exercises, but this is *simulated* citizenship, and citizens can distinguish between real and simulated. They can also tell when the focus is protectionist (I agree with Vanessa that this is the focus of digital citizenship in the US; it’s an outgrowth of the Internet safety discourse here, as well as a mechanism of control in many cases too (e.g., the “classroom management” or “netiquette” part of “citizenship” in US schools). The result, unfortunately, could be disempowerment, if not disenfranchisement. Which marginalizes the concept and the credibility of those who would advance it. I worry that’s what’s happening, which is why I wrote about AGENCY as the missing piece in “digital citizenship” ( and ended with it in a TEDx talk I gave at a UN event last month (not quite yet posted).

    I think we adults, in our very understandable and well-meaning desire to protect our children, have actually been doing the opposite of teaching media literacy, which in *itself* is protective in digital media environments, as all three literacies are. We’ve been teaching them to accept our definition for their own good, rather than co-creating with them a definition that’s meaningful and engaging to all of us citizens. We haven’t encouraged or taught them to apply critical thinking to all the fear-based messaging about their online safety. The researchers at EU Kids Online (representing 25 countries) noticed that and in 2013 published the paper “In Their Own Words.” Since the mid-’90s we’ve been taking *away* their agency – focused on blocking, surveilling and regulating (“parental control tools”) the citizens’ media use with external safeguards much more than on equipping them with the internal safeguards that afford effective use and participation (resilience, ethics, and the literacies of today’s media).

    BTW, have you all bumped into the proposed definition of d.c. recently published in peer-reviewed research? The researchers at UNH who’ve had so much influence in the youth online risk field put forth a simple definition a year ago, and I was delighted to see that civic engagement was key (there’s a link in my post about it here: Would love to get everybody’s thoughts on their very simple definition.

    Anne Collier
    Executive Director
    The Net Safety Collaborative

  15. Jason Ohler July 4, 2016 at 2:27 pm

    One of the most important takeaways from sitting in McLuhan’s class all those years ago is that being able to understand the impacts of technology relies on being able to see what is largely invisible to us: the technological/media ecosystem within which we live our daily lives. After all, we can’t evaluate what we can’t see. He called it his figure-ground theory. Ground is the pervasive, invisible environment that massages our perceptions, personalities and cultural norms without our realizing it, while figure is the spike above the noise that actually appears on our radar screens.

    The bottom line here is that given our media ecosystem’s relative invisibility, we have to focus on it deliberately in order to see it, so that we can ask questions about how it challenges or enhances our humanity, and how we can become better stewards of the technological rollercoaster that has become the new normal. This is, or should be, the goal of media literacy and digital citizenship.

    I could make a case for media lit being the precursor to digital citizenship; I could also make a case for media lit falling within, or existing side by side with, digital citizenship. I suppose in the end I don’t really care which it is. Our concern in this area needs to focus on seeing and evaluating the impacts of our media-saturated culture – as purveyors and consumers – and, most importantly, telling those in charge that helping students do so should be a priority in education.

    Unfortunately, I don’t see this happening in a high takes testing, common core driven education. Too bad, because the future is just getting started, and at some point we will consider cyberbully as simply a starting point in terms of the issues that digcit and media lit needs to address. Soon, we should expect a news headlines like, “Parents demand the right for children to wear neuro-enhancing head gear to take math test,” and “Contact lenses and clothing with connectivity banned in schools.” We want to help our students grapple with issues like these, but where can this happen in an average school day?

    Two things are of particular interest to me these days, and are perhaps separate conversations. First, even if we can “see media” we still need to have criteria for evaluating its impacts. That’s why I prefer that more foundational perspectives drive or at least support digital citizenship and media literacy, like character education or SEL. And second, we have moved from the media literacy v1 era of mass media, in which we were only consumers, to era v2 of participatory social media, in which we can create and distribute media ourselves. This means we are now in the position of using the same persuasive media techniques that we accused media corporations of using. How do we address this?

    If there is a bright light in any of this for me it is the fact that last week, as Mike Ribble and I handed over the reigns of the special interest group in digital citizenship for ISTE that we started three years ago, I sensed that this area of inquiry had finally left the outer fringe and was headed for a more mainstream audience.

  16. S. W. July 5, 2016 at 7:43 pm

    Considerations regarding educational perspectives revolving around the topics of media literacy and digital citizenship is generational according to the age groups of the learners. Middle aged learners (38 years and above) are much more experienced (through age and previous technology limitations) in critically examining the media and its messages’ nuances/overtones. The media literacy levels of these over-the-hill Americans are typically stronger than younger Americans (35 years ad younger).

    Younger Americans are fully immerged in digital citizenship. Media is readily available at their fingertips, and they now how to access, select, and discriminately retrieve the digital information. They may not, however, understand how to critically sift through the over-abundance of information.

    Understanding the age of individual learners is paramount in attempting to quantify the educational balance between media literacy/digital citizenship

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