Key Concepts for Digital Media Literacy

Media educators base their teaching on key concepts for digital media literacy, which provide an effective foundation for examining mass media and popular culture. As media education pioneer Len Masterman put it, “You can teach the media most effectively, not through a content-centered approach, but through the application of a conceptual framework which can help pupils to make sense of any media text.”[1]

Simply put, these are the concepts that students need to understand to be media literate. Students don’t need to be able to articulate the concepts or learn them word-for-word, but need to be able to use them to ask critical questions and understand media phenomena.

Key concepts:

  • Provide teachers with a theoretical basis for developing their own media literacy activities, even if they are not media studies specialists. While a focus on the key concepts should certainly not be taken as a justification not to provide more thorough media and digital literacy training, it at least gives teachers and students a way to start asking questions. Similarly, while they do not excuse a lack of digital technology in schools, they make it possible to do digital media literacy without technology – and give teachers the freedom and flexibility to decide when digital literacy might be better taught with little or no use of digital technology, as well as the ability to teach digital media literacy when access to technology is limited or unavailable.
  • Provide a common language for creating and sharing resources. Teachers in every province and territory, and around the world, can refer to the key concepts when designing and sharing lessons or activities.
  • Provide a learning path as children mature and develop. Because these concepts are so fundamental, students can learn them in ways that are appropriate for their developmental stages.
  • Allow students to transfer the skills they learn to different contexts. For example, teaching students to authenticate information for class work teaches them how to do it in school contexts, but not how – or why – to do it in other situations. A key concepts approach provides an organizing principle in which the skills specific to different disciplines and contexts can be applied.
  • Give teachers tools to develop their own materials and adapt materials to their students’ needs. Although MediaSmarts offers a Digital Media Literacy Framework and an extensive Lesson Library, these key concepts allow teachers to adapt our resources to students’ context and to develop your own lessons and activities.
  • Allow teachers to add a digital media literacy component to existing lessons or activities.
  • Put students in the position of content or technology experts, freeing teachers to train them to think more critically.
  • Keep resources from becoming obsolete when students’ media habits change. Because the specific content is generally less important than students’ understanding of the key concepts, in many cases keeping an activity up-to-date is just a matter of finding more recent examples.

When activities do need more extensive updating, key concepts help us identify why the current approach doesn’t work and develop new approaches that will. For example, early media literacy approaches to verifying information, such as the CRAAP test, were developed at a time when it was expensive to create media, and a small number of gatekeepers controlled most distribution, so it made sense to judge sources primarily through close reading – analysing them for tone, bias, use of loaded language and so on. In today’s networked media environment, though, information overload is the problem, so students now need to learn to triage their sources first, using networked tools for lateral reading to quickly determine which are worth close reading and which aren’t.[2]

Most importantly, key concepts provide a lens for analyzing any media work or experience. Sometimes, particularly with younger children, a single concept will be enough to help us understand something; more often, two or more ‘lenses’ will be applied together, or the tension between two lenses may be explored. The broad questions that follow each key concept below may be used as examples, as well as the more specific ones in different sections of this website.

To teach the key concepts to students, see the resources in our Media Literacy 101 and Digital Literacy 101 programs.

Digital and Media Literacy Key Concepts

Although the study of media has existed for almost a hundred years, relatively few teachers have had exposure to or specialized training in it. For that reason, media educators such as Len Masterman and Barry Duncan in the 1980s identified which elements of that rich field were most important for students to understand by the time they graduate, and “simplified them into a framework that is more accessible to teachers and applicable for students.”[3]

Increasingly, scholars feel that “digital and media literacy should be taught as literacy and... the fields of digital and media literacies can no longer exist in isolation from each other.”[4] While the original key concepts for media literacy are as relevant today as they were then, there are aspects of networked media, such as online conflict or privacy concerns, which cannot be adequately analyzed with just those key concepts. To address this gap, MediaSmarts developed key concepts of digital literacy to identify similar essential ideas that, while not reflecting every aspect of the scholarship, provide teachers – who may feel unprepared to address digital issues in the classroom – with a versatile tool for teaching digital literacy and evaluating their students’ learning.

These new key concepts allow us to apply a media literacy framework to digital media while respecting the fundamental differences between digital and traditional media. Although digital and media literacy both draw on the same core skill of critical thinking, the fact that most digital media are networked and interactive raises additional issues and requires additional habits and skills: 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 essential to keep in mind 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 added dimension of networked interactivity. At the same time, many digital issues cannot be understood without traditional media literacy. For example, youth cannot fully understand why online services want to collect their personal information without exploring the commercial considerations of those services, a traditional concern of media literacy. Even a highly technical subject like the role of algorithms (such as Google’s search algorithm or Facebook’s News Feed) in shaping our online experience and behaviour can really only be understood through a media literacy lens because it depends on recognizing that these were made by people and that they are not neutral tools but rather reflect the biases and assumptions of their creators.[5]

Digital technology has also changed the role of making media in media education: where it once took a very definite back seat to critical media analysis, carried out largely to provide a deeper understanding of media and genre with the expectation that very few students would go on to create media for themselves (either for personal or professional purposes), today nearly all young people create and publish media works of one kind or another on platforms with little or no barriers to entry and educators are scrambling to teach them to apply critical and ethical thinking. This makes it all the more urgent for students to understand and apply the key concepts of digital media literacy.

1. Media are constructions

We instinctively see media as being like windows, allowing an unfiltered view of the world. In fact, though, media are frames that select and direct our attention. Media works are created by individuals who make choices about what to include, what to leave out and how to present what is included.

Every aspect of a media work is the result of a choice, but not all choices are free or conscious. Decisions are based on the creators’ own point of view, which will have been shaped by their opinions, assumptions and biases – as well as media they have been exposed to. As a result of this, while we instinctively view many media works as direct representations of what is real, media works are never entirely accurate reflections of the real world: even the most objective journalist or documentary filmmaker has to decide what footage to use and what to cut, as well as where to put the camera. The fact that we see a puppet as a person, for instance – even when we see the puppeteer – shows how much our minds see media as reality. The instinct to see them as real, even when we see evidence they aren’t, is why it’s so important to ask critical questions about the realities that media show us.

Sample questions to ask:

  • Who created this media work?
  • What is its purpose?
  • What assumptions or beliefs do its creators have that are reflected in the content?
  • What choices did they make in creating it?
  • What conditions might have limited their choices?

2. Media have commercial implications

Most media production is a business and must, therefore, make a profit. In addition, media industries belong to a powerful network of corporations that exert influence on content and distribution. Questions of ownership and control are central – a relatively small number of individuals control what we watch, read and hear in the media. Even in cases where media content is not made for profit – such as YouTube videos and Facebook posts – the ways in which content is distributed are nearly always run with profit in mind. However, commercial pressure is not just one-way: “the professional production of media follows an industrial logic, with a highly structured and routinized production pipeline and process, while at the same time undergoing constant change to accommodate fickle audiences that are increasingly less likely to congregate as a ‘mass’ around content.”[6] As well, the conventional wisdom in an industry may be more influential than the actual commercial reality: for instance, despite the fact that films that have at least two Black directors, producers or screenwriters earn an average of ten per cent more than those that don’t, Black people are still heavily under-represented in Hollywood – at an estimated cost of $10 billion dollars US per year.[7] 

Understanding the business model of a media work’s maker is key to analyzing it. For instance, while news outlets may be influenced by the views or interests of their owners, their content is much more affected by a commercial consideration: the views of their audience.[8] News outlets can appeal to audiences by providing news that is accurate, news that is entertaining, and news that affirms and reinforces audiences’ identities. Most outlets provide at least some of each of these, but understanding which one most affects a particular outlet’s bottom line is key to critically engaging with them: the more people know about how the news industry actually works, for instance, the less likely they are to believe in conspiracy theories.[9]

Similarly, understanding the business model of an online platform such as a search engine or social network is vital to recognizing what implications using it might have for your privacy and what purposes their algorithms might have been optimized for. For example, a search engine that is optimized more for relevance – giving you the information it thinks you want to see – will deliver different results than one that weights accurate and reliable results more heavily. Similarly, nearly all social networks and entertainment sites are optimized to keep you engaged with the site, encouraging you to stay on them longer and return more often.

Sample questions to ask:

  • What is the commercial purpose of this media work (in other words, how will it help someone make money)?
  • How does this influence the content and how it’s communicated?
  • How did considerations of cost influence how the work was made (casting, special effects, coding, etc.)?
  • How do those purposes influence the content and how it’s communicated?

3. Media have social and political implications

“Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Percy Bysshe Shelley

Whether and how media affect us is one of the oldest and most contentious questions in media studies. While few scholars still believe that media will affect everyone in the same way, research has shown repeatedly that they do influence us. In some cases the impact is direct: one study found more than half of Americans had done something based on seeing something in a movie or TV show, and one-third had looked for more information about an issue after seeing it handled in fiction.[10] More often, though, media effects are more indirect: media convey ideological messages about values, power and authority.

Who or what is absent in media may be more important than what or who is included. These messages may be the result of conscious decisions, but more often they are the result of unconscious biases and unquestioned assumptions – and they can have a significant influence on what we think and believe.

As a result, media have great influence on politics and social change through what is called agenda-setting: as political scientist Bernard Cohen put it, media “may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about.”[11] TV news coverage and advertising can greatly influence the election of a national leader on the basis of image; representations of world issues, both in journalism and fiction, can affect how much attention they receive; and society’s views towards different groups can be directly influenced by how – and how often – they appear in media.

As with commercial considerations, social and political implications often work in both directions. The political leanings of news outlets, for instance, are more influenced by their audience than their owners,[12] and audiences on both sides typically feel that media are biased against them.[13] As a result, it’s not generally worth giving too much attention to media makers’ motivations for social and political implications. No text is neutral: while the creators’ intentions are not irrelevant, there is very little difference between the impact of a representation intended by the creator and one that is an unconscious product of their assumptions, their sense of what the audience wants, commercial considerations, industry conventional wisdom and so on.[14] In fact, unintended implications can be more powerful because they are less obvious, and therefore less likely to trigger the audience’s critical thinking.

This concept and the previous one are good examples of how different concepts may be in tension. While advertisers have their own political goals, most often these act as a counterbalance to the partisan leanings of a news outlet.[15] A good gauge of a news source’s reliability, therefore, might be “How far outside of the audience’s political comfort zone is an outlet willing to go in the name of accurate reporting?”

Sample questions to ask:

  • Who and what is shown in a positive light? In a negative light?
  • Why might these people and things be shown this way?
  • Who and what is not shown at all? What voices, perspectives, and experiences are missing?
  • What conclusions might audiences draw based on the above?
  • What are the views of the expected audience? How might those influence the media work?

4. Audiences negotiate meaning

The meaning of any media work is not created solely by its producers but is, instead, a collaboration between them and the audience – which means that different audiences can take away different meanings from the same work. Just as media works are never neutral, the way we read them is not neutral either:

Each time we read, write, or create, we draw from our past experiences and understanding about how the world works… If you agree with a text, it is easy to read it sympathetically and hard to read it critically. However, if you find a text offensive, it is hard to engage with it. But we have to do both: we have to engage with texts on their own terms – both to learn from them and to critique them – and we have to recognize that our identities shape how we consume and produce texts.[16]

The interaction between this key concept and the previous one was well summarized by Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania: “Prolonged exposure to media messages… has an impact on attitudes, but viewers also come predisposed to certain beliefs, and… producers are attuned to what their viewers want to hear.”[17] Media literacy encourages us to understand how individual factors, such as age, gender, race and social status affect our interpretations of media.

However, it is important not to overstate the freedom that we have in negotiating meaning. Audiences, especially those from groups that have traditionally been marginalized in media industries, do engage in “resistant reading,” interpreting works in ways that are directly contrary to the generally received meaning; it is nevertheless true that, as bell hooks put it, “while audiences are clearly not passive and are able to pick and choose, it is simultaneously true that there are certain ‘received’ messages that are rarely mediated by the will of the audience.”[18]

In other words, while we don’t automatically accept the surface meaning of media works, most of us will take away a meaning that is fairly close to it. Only a small number of people, mostly those whose identity or experience lead them to a resistant reading – such as women, racialized or LGBTQ people and others that have historically been mis- and under-represented in media – will have a significantly different interpretation. Until members of these groups have more meaningful participation in the media industries, however, neither the portrayals nor the mainstream audience’s interpretation of them are likely to change.

Similarly, some works are more congenial to resistant readings than others: in most video games, for instance, ‘resistant play’ – choosing actions other than the ones the designers assume you will take – will prevent you from progressing very far in the game.[19] This illustrates the connection between this key concept and the next, that each medium has a unique aesthetic form.

Sample questions to ask:

  • How might different people see this media work differently?
  • How does this make you feel, based on how similar or different you are from the people portrayed in the media work?
  • How were the media makers influenced by their perception of the intended audience?
  • What alternative readings are possible?
  • How does the medium or genre influence how easy or hard it is to “read against the text”?

5. Each medium has a unique aesthetic form

The content of media depends in part on the nature of the medium. This includes the technical, commercial and storytelling demands of each medium: for instance, the interactive nature of video games leads to different forms of storytelling – and different demands on media creators – than what are found in film and TV. Different media require different levels of ‘literacy’ to understand them, as they rely on codes and conventions to communicate meaning. Some, such as television, are made to be as accessible as possible, while others like film or comics may use techniques that take more familiarity to decode, and a few (such as video games) require you to master specialized skills to see all of their content. (Many genres have specialized codes and conventions, as well.)

All media and genres have ‘rules of notice’ that creators use to direct our attention (such as cuts and close-ups) and inflect our experience (such as angles and music), which we can learn to recognize and analyze.[20] Learning the ‘language’ of a medium is necessary to gather evidence to support an interpretation, but it can have more immediate applications as well: for example, learning to recognize the surface features which most of us use to judge the reliability of a website – as well as knowing that spreaders of misleading information deliberately use those features to fool us – is an essential part of learning to recognize what is true online.

Since “channel surfing” became the norm in the cable news era, the media experience has shifted from show to flow, and on platforms such as YouTube, Netflix and TikTok that is now the default. This means our analysis of form, codes and conventions must be applied not just to specific media works but to the entire medium: TV ads, for example, were relatively easy to confront because they interrupted the show, but today’s influencer ads don’t interrupt the flow. 

Sample questions to ask:

  • What techniques does the media work use to get your attention and to communicate its message?
  • In what ways are the images in the media work manipulated through various techniques (for example: lighting, makeup, camera angle, photo manipulation)?
  • What are the expectations of the genre (for example: print advertising, TV dramas, reaction videos, Instagram stories) towards its subject?

6. Digital media are networked.

In traditional media, content only flowed one way: producers created it, then sold or licensed it to distributors who then brought it to you. In digital media, by contrast, you’re no longer the final link in a distribution chain but a node in the middle of an infinite network. You can share content with other people as easily as a producer or distributor shares it with you. Collaboration and dialogue are the norm, rather than solitary creation and broadcasting, and sometimes change the content that we see.

For a medium to be networked it must have three characteristics:

  • All nodes must be connected or connectable (though there may be many intervening nodes)
  • It must be possible to send (and receive) messages to and from multiple nodes at once (many-to-many)
  • Connections must be two-way: it must be possible for nodes to interact (though that interactivity may be made asymmetrical – people on Twitter don’t automatically follow you, for example. As well, networked platforms can limit your ability to interact; your options for consciously interacting with Netflix are limited, but information – such as what you like to watch – still flows back to them on their terms)

Power in networks is not hierarchical, but neither is it evenly distributed: it rests in the nodes with the most – and most asymmetrical – links. This means that those who had gatekeeping power in the old media environment have had their influence reduced, but not eliminated. Power in networks can be imagined in terms of betweenness and closeness: betweenness “measures the control a node has over what flows in the network,” while closeness “measures how easily a node can access what is available via the network… A combination where a node has easy access to others, while controlling the access of other nodes in the network, reveals high informal power.”[21]

These links are always at least two-way, even if you’re not aware of the ways you’re sending data. This means that everyone and everything is linked to everything else. As a result, the barriers to participation are much lower than in traditional media and anyone can publish content and find an audience. This means that there is a much greater range of choice for media consumers,[22] but this choice can be overwhelming. As a result, consumers have largely moved from letting their media experiences be curated by book publishers, movie studios and television networks to having them curated by recommendation algorithms – with the difference being that this curation mostly happens without our knowing it. This is why understanding how our media experiences are curated and being able to take a more active role in choosing and engaging with media is a fundamental digital media literacy skill. In the old media environment, the main focus of media literacy was on how different groups were represented; while this remains important, it is now equally important to consider how and to what extent different groups are able to participate in networked media.

The networked nature of digital media also means that users can interact with peers and celebrities at the same time, and also has important implications when we need to authenticate information or recognize a source’s bias and point of view. The networked nature of digital media also makes it possible for formal and informal communities to develop online, and for the members of those communities to shape their norms and values.

Sample questions to ask:

  • Where does this work sit in the network? What networked tools can you use to help interact with or interpret it?
  • Who has control over what passes between nodes of this network? Who has influence?
  • What is easy to access through this network? What is more difficult?
  • How are you expected to interact with this message?
  • How might the expected interactions influence how it was made?

7. Digital media are shareable and persistent.

Digital content is permanent: everything that is transmitted is stored somewhere and can be searched for and indexed. When considered together with the concept that digital media are networked, this means that most of this content can also be copied, shared or spread at a trivial cost. Even things that are apparently temporary (like Snapchat photos) can be copied, and are almost always stored on the platform’s servers. However, some networks are more open to sharing than others, and networks often make some things easier to share more widely (typically through sorting and recommendation algorithms) and add friction to make some things harder to share (for instance, the Twitter prompt that asks if you have read an article that you’re linking to in a Tweet.)

Because it’s persistent, digital content is mostly consumed asynchronously: we typically react or reply to something at a time other than when it’s posted, and reactions to our reactions will also come at a later, usually unpredictable time. This can make digital media hard to turn off, since a reaction – or a chance for us to respond to something – may come at any time.

Sample questions to ask:

  • How did this work reach you? Was it because you are mutual friends with the maker, because you follow the maker, because someone else shared it with you, or because you found it in a different way? How did the architecture of the platform (such as a recommendation algorithm) influence how it was delivered to you?
  • What might make it easier or harder to share this message?
  • If you made the work, how did you share it? How did that influence how you made it?
  • Was the work meant to be shared widely? If so, what did the maker do to encourage others to share it? If not, what did the maker do to try to limit people’s ability to share or copy it?

8. Digital media have unexpected audiences.

Because digital media are networked and digital content is shareable, what you share online may be seen by people you didn’t intend or expect to see it. Your ability to control who sees what is limited: both content creators and traditional gatekeepers and distributors have much less power to control what happens to it once it’s posted. This can make it difficult to manage audiences, and there is always a risk of context collapse when what was intended for one audience is seen by another. As well, you may be sharing content that you’re not aware of with audiences you don’t know about, such as cookies and other tracking tools that record information about who you are and what you do when you visit a website.

The networked nature of digital media means that it is also easy for users to be unexpected audiences and see content that wasn’t intended for them – or that they didn’t want to see. Rather than seeking out content, frequently our task is now to limit what content we are exposed to. (In fact, young people are primarily concerned with avoiding upsetting content online rather than seeking it out.)[23] Recommendation algorithms can also deliver unwanted or unexpected or unexpected content, which may sometimes include misinformation[24] or hate material.[25] Who is – and isn’t – shown what content can have serious impacts on opportunity (for instance, by showing a job ad to some people and not others), income (by offering a higher price based on what operating system you are using, for example), society (such as reinforcing stereotypes by training an algorithm on biased data) and liberty (subjecting some people to more surveillance than others, for example, or downranking particular kinds of content.)[26]  

Because digital media is networked, it also means that each of us is a node in the network, with the ability to share content with the people connected to us. This means that there is always an ethical aspect to what we do online[27] – which demonstrates the connection between this concept and the next one.

Sample questions to ask:

  • Who was the intended audience for the work? How did the intended audience influence how it was made? (For example, how would a photo you post for your friends to see be different from one for your parents, or a romantic partner?)
  • How might the work be interpreted differently if it was seen by an audience other than the one it was meant for?
  • Were you the intended audience for the work? If so, how did that affect how you responded to it? If not, how did the work reach you?
  • How might the networks have made this work more or less likely to reach you?
  • Which users or messages are whitelisted (exempted from being deleted, downranked or fact-checked) by default, and which are blacklisted?
  • How might the creators or distributors of this work have made it more or less likely to reach you?
  • What things are you not being shown as result of recommendation algorithms?
  • What might happen if the work was seen by unexpected audiences, now or in the future?
  • What responsibilities do you have as a sharer of networked content?

9. Interactions through digital media have real impact

Being networked means that all digital media are, to at least a certain extent, interactive: we are never just passive viewers but always a part of what’s happening. That means that what we do has a real impact on other people, because we are actually interacting with them. We often respond to things online as though we are really there, but most of the cues that tell us how we and others feel are absent. One result of this can be empathy traps, features of networked interaction – such as a feeling of being anonymous, or the absence of cues such as tone of voice or facial expressions in the people we interact with – that prevent us from feeling empathy when we normally would, and these traps can make us forget that what we do online can have real consequences.[28] For the same reasons, it can be very difficult to determine someone’s actual meaning and motivation when interacting with them online.

Partly because of this, and also because of the lack of physical presence online (we may not even entirely feel we’re “in” our bodies, as we’re usually sitting and immobile when using digital media), it’s easy to forget that laws, morals and rights still apply online. The norms and values of the online communities we’re part of can also affect our own personal norms and values, as the values of our offline communities do, but because we don’t always know how many people are in the community we are especially susceptible to the “majority illusion,” in which a small number of loud voices can seem like they’re speaking for the group.[29]

Taken together with the lowered barriers to publication discussed above, this can also mean that the people and images we interact with online impact us as much or more than images in traditional media because they are (or seem to be) our peers. The images of ourselves we create online have an extra impact on us because they embody who we imagine (or wish) ourselves to be.

But there are important positive aspects to this, as well. The interactive nature of networked media allows everyone, even youth, to be fully engaged citizens online, and to take part in shaping the norms and values of our online communities – and to use networked tools to make a difference in our offline communities.

Sample questions to ask:

  • What are the norms and values of your online communities? Do I agree with them? If not, what can I do to shape them?
  • What are the possible moral and ethical consequences of different online actions?
  • How can we remind ourselves to feel empathy for people we’re interacting with online? What strategies can we use to moderate conflict?
  • How can we use networked tools to make a difference in our online and offline communities?

10. Digital media experiences are shaped by the tools we use.

One of the most fundamental insights of media literacy is that the form of a medium influences how we “read” or experience a text. While this remains true in digital media, the network effect means that the architecture of a platform – everything from the user interface we interact with to the algorithms that determine how it delivers content to us – affects not just the meaning and message of digital media but also our own behaviour when using them.These can be analyzed in terms of affordances (what a tool enables you to do) and defaults (what is easy and expected to do with it.) The two of these combine to create choice architectures that make some uses possible or easier, others harder or impossible, and steer the user’s behaviour[30] by requesting, demanding, encouraging, discouraging, refusing and allowing certain actions.[31]

Though it is possible to make “resistant” use of a networked tool – either by changing or “hacking” its affordances, or by using it in ways outside of its defaults – in general the vast majority of people adopt the default use; for this reason, defaults can be as (or more) important than affordances.[32] There is, as a result, a constant tension between the user’s desires and the affordances of the platform: the less the platform was designed with you in mind, the greater the tension. Teens may choose to post casual photos on Snapchat and more formal ones on Instagram, for instance, based on how they see the two platforms serving their purposes differently, but they are also being influenced by the structure of those platforms: Snapchat, where photos are temporary by default, creates an expectation of being casual and “fun,” while Instagram’s persistent feed promotes the careful maintenance of a public-facing profile.[33]

As the historian of science Melvin Kranzberg put it, different technologies are neither inherently good nor inherently bad, but neither are they neutral:[34] they reflect the beliefs, unconscious biases and unquestioned assumptions of their creators. Sometimes these values will be consciously applied: if a platform’s designers consider freedom of speech their top priority, then protections from hate speech and harassment will probably be an afterthought at best – which will influence who feels free to speak and what kinds of conversations happen. But unconscious attitudes can be at play, too, such as an “engineering mindset” that sees no problem with showing different job listings for Black and White users, or with delivering an ever-narrower feed of news that you’re likely to agree with if that’s the most efficient and effective way to advertise to you. As is almost always the case, commercial considerations are also key: a platform that makes money from user engagement will naturally encourage interactions that produce the most intense engagement, no matter the content or tenor of those interactions.

Sample questions to ask:

  • What tools were used to make and distribute a work? What tools are we using?
  • Who made the tool? Who were the expected users? How did that influence its design?
  • What are the tool’s affordances? What are its defaults? How do these combine to constrain, steer, and enable particular actions?
  • What uses have people put the tool to that its makers didn’t anticipate? How do they change how it’s used?

Media education in the home

Media education doesn’t just happen in the classroom. Once parents understand these concepts there are endless opportunities to explore them with our kids. A trip to the grocery store can be a media literacy experience: if your child asks why a cartoon character is on a cereal box, discuss how the people who designed the box (media are constructions) know that kids will ask their parents to buy it (media have commercial implications). Then show them a cereal aimed at adults and ask how it’s different (audiences negotiate meaning).

As our kids get older and their media habits change, these teachable moments turn into chances to be co-learners with our kids, as we explore everything from the complications of communicating by text to the long life of childhood photos. Make a habit of asking them if it’s okay before you post a photo of them, explaining who’s likely to see them (digital media are shareable and persistent) so that by the time they’re active on social media they’re in the habit of getting consent before sharing other people’s photos (interactions through digital media can have a real impact.)

Once we understand these key concepts, it becomes clear that there are connections to digital and media literacy everywhere. If we’re open about the fact that we’re learning alongside our children, applying our understanding of these key concepts to new contexts and technologies, we can help them see that media education is not just for school but for a lifetime.


[1] Masterman, L. (2010) Voices of Media Literacy. Center for Media Literacy. Retrieved from <>

[2] Wineburg, S., Breakstone, J., Ziv, N., & Smith, M. (2020). Educating for misunderstanding: How approaches to teaching digital literacy make students susceptible to scammers, rogues, bad actors, and hate mongers. Stanford History Education Group Working Paper No. A-21322). Retrieved March, 2, 2021.

[3] Kellner, D., & Share, J. (2005). Toward Critical Media Literacy: Core concepts, debates, organizations, and policy. Discourse: studies in the cultural politics of education , 26(3), 369-386.

[4] Turner, K. H., Jolls, T., Hagerman, M. S., O’Byrne, W., Hicks, T., Eisenstock, B., & Pytash, K. E. (2017). Developing digital and media literacies in children and adolescents. Pediatrics, 140(Supplement 2), S122-S126.

[5] Or, in the case of machine-learning algorithms, the sets they were trained on.

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