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Friday, February 27, 2009

*Social* media literacy: The new Internet safety

In talks and sound bytes over the past year, I've been saying that - for the vast majority of online youth - digital citizenship is the new Internet safety. And indeed digital citizenship is HUGE, for the very reason that behaving aggressively online more than doubles the risk of being victimized (see "Good citizens in virtual worlds, too"). Still, that's really only the half of it. Media literacy is the other half. I haven't been saying that "digital citizenship + media literacy = online safety 2.0" because it's such a mouthful, and it's important to keep things simple and focused. But media literacy is huge too, because critical thinking about incoming ad messages, compliments, group think, etc. is protective against manipulation and harm.

Now it's time for a remix. Old media literacy is about what we consume, read, or download. We still need that - more than we ever have in this fast-paced age of information overload. But on the participatory Web of social producing and creative networking we also need social media literacy. I have spent some time in and been influenced by, the work of MIT media professor Henry Jenkins, colleagues and students, building on Jenkins's foundational 2006 white paper, "Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture" (see also my coverage of it in '06).

If you watch the video on's home page or look at the basic skills of new media literacy, I think you too will see that digital citizenship is there - perhaps partly under "Negotiation" ("the ability to travel across diverse communities, discerning and respecting multiple perspectives, and grasping and following alternative norms") and partly under "Collective Intelligence" ("the ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with others toward a common goal"). But maybe it should be its own skill. Doesn't it make sense to fold it in there?

More importantly, I think the critical skill, "Judgment" ("the ability to evaluate the reliability and credibility of different information sources"), needs to be redefined. That's the old media literacy definition. Critical thinking on the participatory Web needs to be about what we upload, post, produce, and behave like as much as what we download, read, watch, and passively consume. If social media literacy involves that kind of critical judgment, as well as digital citizenship (a first stab at a definition might be: the ability to function, act, communicate, and collaborate in community appropriately, civilly, ethically, and productively), then I propose that....

Social media literacy = online safety 2.0

Or am I being too reductionist? Do you prefer:

Digital citizenship + social media literacy = online safety 2.0

Please weigh in, with a comment here or in the ConnectSafely forum or via email: anne(at)

Related links

  • I really like the Center for Media Literacy's vision for 21st-century literacy - "the ability to communicate competently in all media forms as well as to access, understand, analyze, evaluate and participate with powerful images, words and sounds that make up our contemporary mass media culture" - but, coming from an online-safety perspective, I think the definition needs to go beyond competency to include social media literacy, ethics, and's list of skills.

  • From the Byron Review, quoted the other day in a Telegraph blog's "Teenagers online": "Research is beginning to reveal that people act differently on the internet and can alter their moral code, in part because of the lack of gate-keepers and the absence in some cases of the visual cues from others that we all use to moderate our interactions with each other. This is potentially more complex for children and young people who are still trying to establish the social rules of the offline world and lack the critical evaluation skills to either be able to interpret incoming information or make appropriate judgments about how to behave online." Exactly!

  • Professor Jenkins's barriers to full participation in the participatory culture, which parents and teachers can help youth overcome: Besides simply not being able to participate because of lack of Internet access ("The Participation Gap"), they are "The Transparency Problem" ("the challenges young people face in learning to see clearly the ways that media shape perceptions of the world") and "The Ethics Challenge" ("the breakdown of traditional forms of professional training and socialization that might prepare young people for their increasingly public roles as media makers and community participants") - see "Participation: Key opp for our kids."

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    Anonymous Nancy Willard said...

    Anne, you are astute as always and this new focus is necessary. But as important as the social media literacy - consuming and creating in Web 2.0 - is, there are still some basic underlying issues of personal online safety that will not be covered under this "umbrella."

    The skills necessary for the new social media literacy will provide the foundation for safety also. Take the risks associated with "fantasy online love" relationships - where someone might mistakenly perceive that he or she has found true love online. There are aspects of addressing this that relate to information credibility, but there are still important personal safety issues that we have to address.

    And there will remain the concerns of dealing with the young people who are at greater risk online, who also are at risk in the real world.


    2:26 PM  
    Anonymous Merlyn Horton said...

    I think 'digital citizenship' has to be part of the equation. Addressing 'citizenship', also allows us to have dialogue with youth about cyberbullying and online conflicts between peers.

    AND media literacy is very much the second part of the equation. Understanding the way that media is shaping our social identities (starting in adolescence) is pivotal to understanding how to participate. Here's a link to a Clay Shirkey's classic TEDTV presentation, on institutions vs. collaboration.

    I think the alternate lens he presents is useful in our discussions about 'internet safety' with our youth.

    Enjoy your blog,

    10:43 AM  

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