Because both digital and media literacy are fairly new concepts, there is considerable debate amongst experts and academics around the world as to how they should be defined. It is generally agreed that skills and competencies for digital literacy and media literacy are closely related to each other and to additional “21st-century” skills that are needed for living and working in media- and information-rich societies.[i] For example, the key concepts for media literacy – that media is constructed; that audiences negotiate meaning; that media have commercial, social and political implications; and that each medium has a unique aesthetic form that affects how content is presented – are as equally applicable to watching TV news as to searching for health information online.
Digital literacy encompasses the personal, technological, and intellectual skills that are needed to live in a digital world. As the lines between ‘traditional’ and ‘new’ media become blurred and digital technology becomes increasingly central for full participation in society, our understanding of ‘digital competence’ has expanded from a focus on technical ability to include the broader social, ethical, legal and economic aspects of digital use. At the same time, digital literacy also encompasses many practical competencies for playing, learning and working in a knowledge economy that are separate from media literacy skills.
Media literacy is a critical engagement with mass media, which nowadays includes digital technologies. Additionally, as media and communications platforms converge our media practices are changing – from being external spectators and receivers of entertainment and information, to being active participants within an immersive media culture. This shift has necessitated an expanded notion of what it means to be media literate, which now includes an appreciation of individuals as both producers and consumers of media content and an understanding of the resulting social and cultural shifts that take place because of this.[ii] As a result, competencies for media literacy now include a variety of critical thinking, communication and information management skills that reflect the demands and reality of digital culture.
The following chart illustrates how skills for digital literacy and media literacy connect and intersect with each other and with other core literacies to provide a full range of competencies for 21st century life.
Although digital and media literacy are closely related, and both draw on the same core skill of critical thinking, there are important differences in how the two have traditionally been approached from an educational standpoint: media literacy generally focuses on teaching youth to be critically engaged consumers of media, while digital literacy is more about enabling youth to participate in digital media in wise, safe and ethical ways. However, it is important to keep in mind that competencies for digital literacy and media literacy are not separate, but rather complementary and mutually supporting and are constantly evolving and intersecting in new and interesting ways.
An example of this can be found in the evolution of gaming. Early video games like Pac Man took place in a strictly linear fashion that demanded an action on the part of the player, who had to respond appropriately or lose. Even more complex games like Final Fantasy still operated under a traditional media model where the story and its outcome were already written. However, in the past decade and a half, gaming has undergone a radical shift through online games such as Warcraft III, The Sims and Second Life, where players interact with the games and each other to integrate their own custom experiences into their online play. These new kinds of games involve a whole series of new skills. In addition to the more traditional media literacy skills of casting a critical eye on the game’s content and narrative and analyzing the economic imperatives and power relations that operate both overtly and behind the scenes, users must now also manipulate data and negotiate social interactions with other players.
Explore the Digital Literacy Fundamentals and Media Literacy Fundamentals sections of our website to understand more about the underlying aspects and principles for each of these skill sets.
 Hobbs, Renee (2010). “Digital and Media Literacy: A Plan of Action”. The Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program 2010. http://www.knightcomm.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/Digital_and_Media_Literacy_A_Plan_of_Action.pdf
 Poyntz, S. and Hoechsmann, M. (2011) Teaching and Learning Media: From Media Literacy 1.0 to Media Literacy 2.0. Wiley-Blackwell Publishers.