Defining Digital Media Literacy

Digital media literacy is the ability to critically, effectively and responsibly access, use, understand and engage with media of all kinds.

MediaSmarts’ definition of digital media literacy is based on the recognition that digital literacy does not replace or run parallel to media literacy but rather builds on it, while incorporating new concepts that arise from the difference between traditional and digital media – in particular, their networked nature. At the same time, many digital issues cannot be understood without the key concepts of traditional media literacy.

Media are powerful forces in the lives of youth. Music, TV, video games, social networks, online video, and other media all have a strong influence on how we see the world, an influence that often begins in infancy. To be engaged and critical media users and consumers, young people need to develop the skills and habits of digital media literacy.  These skills are being able to access media and navigate digital networks; to analyze and evaluate media in a critical way based on certain key concepts; to use digital and media tools to make media and for school, work, and personal interest; and to engage with media to express oneself and participate in online and offline communities. MediaSmarts’ digital media literacy model is made up of three parts: key concepts, core competencies, and framework topics. Briefly, key concepts are what students need to understand about digital media literacy; core competencies are what they need to be able to do; and framework topics are what they need to know.   

All of the key concepts, core competencies and framework topics can be taught to students at all ages and grade levels. This process of learning digital media literacy skills is media education.  The importance of media education in Canada can be seen through the inclusion of media literacy outcomes in provincial and territorial curricula. But defining exactly what media education and digital media literacy are – and how best to integrate them into the classroom – isn’t always straightforward.

What does it mean to be media literate? The field of media literacy – which has both expanded to include digital literacy and been divided into sub-fields such as news literacy and advertising literacy – is sometimes described as being too broad to have a single definition,[1] but this breadth is essential. Digital media literacy is not just about verifying information, or deconstructing stereotypes, or observing “netiquette,” or about protecting your privacy online. Not only are these different aspects equally important, they are connected, in sometimes surprising ways: for example, the promotion of gender stereotypes to young children and data collection by social networks are both motivated by marketers’ desire to target content and ads more accurately – and themselves have an impact on phenomena ranging from cyberbullying to misinformation. A media literate person, therefore, is someone with the skills, knowledge and critical capacity that are traditionally included in both “media literacy” and “digital literacy” – and an understanding of the connections between them.  

It could also be argued that the use of the word “literacy” is inaccurate because most media are more like spoken language than like print. While there are codes and conventions that communicate meaning in media, these can be learned through simple exposure rather than needing to be decoded before being understood. It is precisely because we can understand media without being taught, though, that we are less likely to think about them as having authors and having been made by a series of creative decisions; as a result, learning this can be an “aha” moment similar to decoding letters and words for the first time.

Moreover, the term is useful in making us think beyond technical and practical skills to consider the full meaning of the term literacy: “When we describe somebody as a ‘literate’ person, we do not simply mean that [they] can read and write… the notion of literacy generally implies a more reflexive approach. Literacy in this broader sense involves analysis, evaluation and critical reflection.”[2] The idea of digital media literacy becomes more useful when we think of it not just as a collection of skills but as a practice: while it rests upon a foundation of skills and knowledge, the end goal of digital media literacy is to empower young people to “access… the cultural, economic and political structures of a society”[3] and to motivate them to interrogate, challenge and (when they choose) push back against the media they use and consume.

As well, digital media literacy is not one-dimensional: it is possible to be media literate in some ways but not others, and even media professionals often have a limited understanding of media representation issues or even the commercial realities of their own industries. Similarly, young people’s enthusiasm for digital media masks a potential problem. Although they don’t need coaxing to take up internet technologies and their skills quickly improve relative to their elders, without guidance they remain amateur users of digital technology. In order to be literate in today’s media-rich environments, young people need to develop knowledge, values and a whole range of critical thinking, communication and information management skills for the digital age. As increasing numbers of businesses, services and even democratic processes migrate online, citizens who lack digital media literacy skills risk being disadvantaged when it comes to accessing healthcare, government services and opportunities for employment, education and civic participation.[4]

Nor is digital media literacy confined to English language arts or the parts of the curriculum that traditionally deal with technology or ‘information literacy’: rather, it is “as much a key part of learning about history and learning how to study history, and learning about science and learning how to study science, as it is about learning about ICT (information and communication technology) and learning the skills of using ICT. Indeed, possessing digital [media] literacy is an important set of life skills to complement and extend the skills and knowledge already taught in school.”[5]

In the end, the most important consideration when developing a definition of digital media literacy in a pedagogical context is whether it is useful: useful to teachers in developing, adapting and implementing activities and resources, and to students as a lens for asking critical questions about the online world. Traditional media literacy offers little help in analyzing issues such as cyberbullying and online privacy – but at the same time, these and similar issues require a media literacy lens to go beyond simple (and quickly obsolete) technical instructions. Moreover, there is increasing evidence that issues such as verifying and sharing false information depend on skills associated both with digital literacy and traditional media literacy.[6] To remain current and relevant, media education needs both to update the fundamentals of media literacy to reflect what’s unique about digital media, and to apply media literacy practice to digital literacy: “While learning how to use and manipulate digital technology is important, without an understanding of the role humans play in questioning, challenging and therefore shaping this techno-social system, then the scope of digital literacy is limited.”[7]


[1] Cunliffe-Jones, P., Gaye, S., Gichunge, W., Onumah, C., Pretorius, C., & Schiffrin, A. (2021). The State of Media Literacy in Sub-Saharan Africa 2020 and a Theory of Misinformation Literacy. Misinformation Policy In Sub-Saharan Africa: From Laws and Regulations to Media Literacy.

[2] Buckingham, D. (2007). Digital Media Literacies: rethinking media education in the age of the Internet. Research in comparative and international education, 2(1), 43-55.

[3] Belshaw, D. A. (2012). What is' digital literacy'?: a pragmatic investigation (Doctoral dissertation, Durham University).

[4] Hobbs, Renee (2012). “Hobbs: Info literacy must be a community education movement.”

[5] Hague, C. and Williamson, B. (2009). Digital Participation, Digital Literacy, and School Subjects: A Review of the Policies, Literature and Evidence. Bristol: Futurelab.

[6] Sirlin, N., Epstein, Z., Arechar, A. A., & Rand, D. (2021). Digital literacy and susceptibility to misinformation. This study found that while digital literacy was associated with a better ability to recognize false online content, only knowledge of how the news industry works was associated with a lower likelihood of sharing it.

[7] Pangrazio, L. (2016). Reconceptualising critical digital literacy. Discourse: Studies in the cultural politics of education, 37(2), 163-174.