Media literacy for children: empowering
citizens for a mediatized world
Universidad de Lima, Peru
Mateus, J.-C. (2021). Media literacy for children: Empowering citizens for a mediatized
world. Global Studies of Childhood. https://doi.org/10.1177/20436106211014903
Becoming a critical user of media is a premise for citizenship in contemporary times. The use of critical
thinking skills in mediatized scenarios demands developing the ability to interact with media, not only
in being able to use devices, but also for understanding their socio-cultural effects. Our recent pandemic
and political circumstances have raised our levels of awareness about fake news and biased media
opinions. Here, I contend that we need to consider three basic arguments that should be taken into
account when thinking about media literacy: Access to the internet constitutes a human right, though
that is not enough, as we must develop critical media literacy skills as well; media policies should focus
on the empowerment of citizens; and media literacy education policies must address the initial and
continued professional learning of teachers to ensure its success.
media literacy, media and information literacy, media competencies, media skills, teacher training
Media literacy for children:
empowering citizens for a mediatized world
To exercise a political right
In 2016, the United Nations passed a resolution that deemed access to the internet as a basic human
right. It affirmed that every right a person has must be protected on the Internet, particularly, freedom
of speech. The resolution also recognized the internet’s global and open nature as an opportunity for
progress, including the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. It was also declared that
the quality of education plays a decisive role in development, therefore, it was considered to be
imperative to foster media literacy while aiding access to information on the internet as a tool for
facilitating the right to education.
In the current Covid-19 context we should recall the importance of having access to plural and
independent media in order to have informed decisions be released from authentic sources. However,
regulating media is not enough when the users of social media are also helping to generate
misinformation. It is here where media education for content creators needs to occur from an early age.
The Oxford English Dictionary named post-truth as 2016’s word of the year, defining it as a way of
modelling public opinion by appealing to our emotions and personal beliefs. During 2020, with the
pandemic propagating worldwide, the flow of fake news became rampant. The World Health
Organization has designated this situation as an infodemic; that is as something that needs to be
recognized and neutralised (Zarocostas, 2020).
Indeed, we are witnessing truth erosions and institutional crises which are characteristic of a post-
modern world (Chomsky, 2018). Many people trust algorithms and search engines more than human
editors of information (Logg et al., 2019). While the information monopoly of companies such as
Google and Facebook is widely discussed, we tend to rely on them more than on our own critical skills.
It begs the question; Is it possible to freely exercise a right while depending on technology?
This phenomenon can be a major contributor to the loss of credibility by experts and specialists. In its
place, the new information standard is produced through exchanges between peer communities in social
media. Almost half the world’s population uses social and non-traditional media to access information,
according to a global study conducted by the Pew Research Center (Mitchell, Simmons, Matsa, and
Silver, 2018). This shift in information sources has garnered more attention regarding the effects created
by filters and bubbles on virtual environments, through echo chambers that distort our perception of
reality (Flaxman, Goel and Rao, 2016; Del Vicario et al., 2016).
Media education has the potential to help individuals to exercise their political right to attend to these
matters. To invoke citizenship in this context is to talk about citizenship in the media as a digital
concern. At the same time, it entails talking about gained or intensified citizenship through the use of
technology (Gozálvez-Pérez, 2011; Mateus, Andrada and Quiroz, 2020).
UNESCO’s proposal to push Media and Information Literacy education posits an openly political
answer stemming from the defense of basic human rights (linked to liberty and political participation).
It puts forward third-generation rights through the formation of critical skills to participate in the public
sphere, as well as being able to face technologies instead of being dependent on them.
From protectionism to empowerment
Over time, the fundamentals of media education have varied, ontologically as well as within their
objects of study and applications. Concerns over the failures of formal education made educators blame
media saturation for children’s learning problems, and even their moral ‘disorientation’; ideas which
are still held true by some educators (Alfaro, 2000: 181). Previously, media education was seen as a
way to “inoculate” individuals from the harmful effects of media. Then advocacy for citizen
empowerment was considered to be a better way to cultivate resiliency when engaging with media. For
example, “Cultural critics who had formerly adopted the inoculation approach now began to be
interested in the potentials of media for art and education, the ‘creative media approach’” (Hoechsmann
and Poyntz, 2012: 146).
The protectionist approach was promoted over the creation of narrative models which guarded the
interests of media over citizens, while the empowerment approach proposed the formation of citizenship
and the fostering of critical skills. This second ‘emancipatory’ approach conceptualizes literacy as a
complex sociocultural practice which embodies, reflects and disputes power relations. Certainly, critical
literacy is not limited to analysis, but rather it aims to equip people with skills for responsible and free
speech in a mediatized world.
The educational interest related to media can be correlated with technological advancement and the new
dynamics generated in the process. Likewise, academic development on media education is also linked
with communication. In the late 90s, the most popular definition for media education focused on mass
media and pedagogy. Its main goal was to foster media messages’ critical reception. Moreover, this
definition went beyond mere aesthetic appreciation– which was an important element at the dawn of
European media education– with its focus on ideological aspects pertaining to manipulative power,
social relations and knowledge’s social construction. This shift reshaped teaching practices and
relationships with students, aiming to demand from both greater focus on the cognitive skills necessary
for understanding how media operates, which interests media promotes and what their representations
signify. Unnecessary technology purchases were criticized, as well as the indifference shown about
learning how media undermined the teacher’s role beyond the classroom. A desire for the development
of new curricula with new competencies neared, as well as the requirement to redefine when and where
learning occurred (Tella, 1997).
The National Leadership Conference on Media Literacy, took place in 1992 in Maryland, USA. It
helped the shift from a protectionist approaches towards critical empowerment for individuals. The
current and most extended theoretical definition of media competencies was proposed there: a citizen’s
ability to access, analyze and produce information towards specific goals (Aufderheide, 1993: 6).
Originally media education started from a distrust towards mainstream media (Masterman, 2003: 191).
Additionally, the struggles to protect the ideals of a critical and cultured society were promoted which
meant that unnecessary radicalism and prejudice were justly critiqued. However, the protectionist
approach later acquired a sense of opportunity, looking to exploit the possibilities of user appropriation
in media (users were no longer regarded as passive content consumers but rather producers and critically
users of media). In contemporary times and with the convergence of participatory culture theories
(Jenkins et al., 2009) these notions have been extended.
Pérez-Tornero (2013), regards the current era as being eclectic. He maintains that it combines the power
of creation – with user-centered social media– and the generation of content with the culture of
convergence and participation. Within the European project Transmedia Literacy, over 50 researchers
from eight countries were able to recognize and organize and map 44 main and 190 specific capabilities
attributed to teenagers in informal settings, outside schools. These skills range from problem solving
processes in videogames to production and exchange of content on social media platforms; the creation,
production, exchange and critical consumption of narrative content (e.g. fanfiction, fanvids) by
teenagers is also a part of this (Scolari, 2018: 8). Their research confirmed an approach centered on
empowering “prosumers” who are capable of initiating and taking a proactive approach with media
The current education scenarios are vastly different to the one educators knew when they began teaching
media studies. The new compass for these changes is marked by media digitalization. Ola Erstad (2010:
90-91) highlights four of these:
1) The surge in participatory culture presented by Jenkins (2006), with new ways to participate
and share in society. Additionally, the gradual breaking down of boundaries between online
and offline worlds.
2) The ability to easily access information, a significant difference from the book age.
3) The possibility of omni-channel and multimodal communication.
4) New types of content production with the infinite range of possibilities brought by apps.
Recognizing the ways in which our mediatized society operates is fundamental for understanding the
current era. Mediated and mediatized should be differentiated. Mediated describes communication
happening through a specific medium. Mediatized alludes to structural shifts in society affecting
different cultural, economic and political layers stemming from the media omnipresence. Thus, the
mediatization theory helps to understand the presence of media in society not only as channels
transmitting communication (mediation), but as how they reshape (and create) relations amongst
individuals and institutions that use them and who depend upon their logic and procedures.
Although traditional research on media has focused on determining the influence media has on society
and culture (e.g. the effects advertisements and media have on citizens; how the press influences
political inclinations and what are the effects of videogames on children and teenagers), all of this
should can be rethought under the lens of the new context brought by media. This context is defined,
by the mediatization of cultures and societies (Hjardvard, 2016), as well as how and why it is
constructed and for whose benefit (Ramírez-García and González-Fernández, 2016).
With the introduction of social media in the mid-2000s, media has evolved to include social platforms
from which many humans get their information. The meaning of what is social has human relations and
everyday life as its basis. What is social, in fundamentally mediatized nature, does not only reside within
each individual’s mind, but also in material processes (e.g. objects, relations, infrastructures, platforms)
from which communication and construction of meaning take place: “The more intense our social life
feels, the greater its recursive dependency on technological media of communication” (Couldry and
Hepp, 2017: 4).
Media training for educators must begin from a social and cultural understanding of media. In many
countries, teachers receive media education within a prescriptive paradigm centered in the use – correct
or incorrect– of ICT, and which only values them as tools for better teaching experiences. This is why
it is vital to overcome the technologist paradigm (Mateus, Andrada and Quiroz, 2020). The
incorporation of aspects from media education in school curricula does not constitute a definitive
solution to the problem on its own, though it may be a first step towards garnering attention on the
impact of media on culture, as well as discussing its role on the new education paradigm that specialists
talk so much about.
The access to media inside and out of schools, or the unprecedented situation of having to depend on
media for education during the pandemic, are issues that may represent a new imperative for media
education. The imprint of education technology has commonly been accompanied by the false
revolutionary premise of media as devices whose sole existence improve education quality.
Nonetheless, literature on the topic concludes that guaranteeing access to devices is not enough to
overcome the media divide, instead, it suggests shifting towards developing skills which will allow
critical and creative interaction with media. Thus, revolution is not inside devices, but in the motives
behind why we bring them to school. As Cuban (2011) stated, there is little evidence that investing in
technology achieves substantially better results in teaching practices or learning improvements for
students. Access to new technologies do not necessarily bring any positive changes unless perhaps they
are accompanied by a new education paradigm. This paradigm could start by accepting that the school
experience is incomplete when it undervalues knowledge and skills students obtain by any informal
means. It could also demand that learning experiences designed to establish a dialogue with students’
interests, and constructed preferably through ICTs outside school, will be beneficial.
In this context, education in media for teachers could prevent media from being perceived as simply
external tools for citizens. The usage of media to facilitate learning processes, or for motivation, is not
media education. Media education aims to foster the exercise of a political perspective centered on
liberty and responsibility. It is less an instrumental outlook and more a humanist one that should be at
the heart of teacher education.
Following Abreu et al. (2017), it contended here that it is fundamental that educators value four relevant
transformations in their media education: (i) the transformation of mass media into convergent media,
emphasizing the opportunities these bring; (ii) the passage from an analytical or productive approach to
a combined one, replacing consumption for interaction, and consumer for user; (iii) going from literacy
towards multiliteracies, taking into account the elasticity of media education; (iv) the transformation
from schools to communities, considering that more frequent media usage often occurs outside school.
In sum, media education should not be viewed as a panacea (Bulger and Davison, 2018), but as a
condition for our development as citizens in a mediatized ecosystem. Media literacy should be thought
of, as Paulo Freire (2005) claimed as an example of being literate , and as a liberating process that will
allow understanding and changing one’s own reality when reviewed and critiqued effectively.
Declaration of conflicting interests
The authors declare no potential conflicts of interest concerning the research, authorship, and/or
publication of this article.
Institute of Scienfitic Research (IDIC), University of Lima
Alfaro RM (2000) Educación y comunicación: ¿a la deriva del sentido de cambio? In: C Valderrama
(ed) Comunicación-Educación. Coordenadas, abordajes y travesías. Bogota: Siglo del Hombre
Editores/Universidad Central – DIUC, pp.181–198.
Aufderheide P (1993) Media Literacy. A Report of the National Leadership Conference on Media
Literacy. Washington DC: Aspen Institute. Available at: https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED365294.pdf
(accessed 20 February 2021).
Bulger M and Davison P (2018) The promises, challenges, and futures of media literacy. Journal of
Media Literacy Education 10(1): 1–21. DOI: 10.23860/JMLE-2018-10-1-1.
Chomsky N (2018) La gente ya no cree en los hechos. El País, 10 March. [Martínez Ahrens J,
interviewer]. Available at: https://elpais.com/cultura/2018/03/06/babelia/1520352987_936609.html
(accessed 20 February 2021).
Couldry N and Hepp A (2017) The mediated construction of reality. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Cuban L (2011) Dilemes polítics i docents de l’ús de les TIC a l’aula: El cas dels Estats Units. In:
Debats d'educació 20. Barcelona: Fundació Jaume Bofill. Available at:
http://debats.cat/sites/default/files/debats/pdf/dilemes-politics-docents.pdf (accessed 20 February
De Abreu BS, Mihailidis P, Lee AY, Melki J and McDougall J (2017) International Handbook of Media
Literacy Education. London: Routledge.
Del Vicario M, Bessi A, Zollo F, Petroni F, Scala A, Caldarelli G, Stanley E and Quattrociocchi W
(2016) The spreading of misinformation online. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of
the United States of America 13(3): 554–559. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1517441113.
Erstad O (2010) Educating the Digital Generation. Nordic Journal of Digital Literacy 1(5): 56-71.
Available at: https://www.idunn.no/dk/2010/01/art05 (accessed 9 March 2021).
Flaxman S, Goel S and Rao JM (2016) Filter Bubbles, Echo Chambers, and Online News Consumption.
Public Opinion Quarterly 80(S1): 298–320. DOI: 10.1093/poq/nfw006.
Freire P (2005) Pedagogía del oprimido. Mexico City: Siglo XXI.
Gozálvez-Pérez V (2011) Educación para la ciudadanía democrática en la cultura digital. Comunicar
18(36): 131-138. DOI:10.3916/C36-2011-03-04
Hjarvard S (2016) Mediatización: La lógica mediática de las dinámicas cambiantes de la interacción
social. La Trama de la Comunicación 20(1): 235–525. Available at:
https://www.redalyc.org/pdf/3239/323944778013.pdf (accessed 9 March 2021).
Hoechsmann M and Poyntz SR (2012) Media Literacies: A Critical Introduction. West Sussex: Wiley-
Jenkins, H. (2006). Convergence Culture. Where old and new media collide. New York: New York
Jenkins H, Clinton K, Purushotma R, Robison A and Weigel M (2009) Confronting the challenges of
participatory culture: Media education for the 21st century. Chicago: The MacArthur Foundation.
Logg JM, Minson JA and Moore DA (2019) Algorithm appreciation: People prefer algorithmic to
human judgment. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes (151): 90–103. DOI:
Masterman L (2003) Teaching the Media. New York: Routledge.
Mateus JC, Andrada P and Quiroz MT (Eds.) (2020) Media education in Latin America. London/New
Mitchell A, Simmons K, Matsa KE, and Silver L (2018) Publics Globally Want Unbiased News
Coverage, but Are Divided on Whether Their News Media Deliver. Available at:
divided-on-whether-their-news-media-deliver/ (accessed 20 February 2021).
Pérez-Tornero JM (2013) ABC… Media Literacy White Paper. European Media Literacy: Selected
Texts from Studies. Barcelona: Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona.
Ramírez-García A and González-Fernández N (2016) Competencia mediática del profesorado y del
alumnado de educación obligatoria en España. Comunicar 24(49): 49–58. DOI: 10.3916/C49-2016-05.
Scolari CA (2018) Transmedia literacy in the new media ecology: white paper. Barcelona: Universitat
Pompeu Fabra. Available at: https://repositori.upf.edu/handle/10230/33910 (accessed 20 February
Tella S (1997) Media and Man. On Whose Terms? Aspects of Media Education. In: Proceedings of a
Subject-Didactic Symposium, Helsinki, Finland, 14 February 1997, pp. 11–21. Helsinki: University of
Oxford Dictionaries (2016) Word of the Year 2016. Available at: https://languages.oup.com/word-of-
the-year/2016/ (accessed 20 February 2021).
Zarocostas J (2020) How to fight an infodemic. Lancet 395(10225). DOI: 10.1016/S0140-
Julio-Cesar Mateus, PhD in Communication, is a Full Professor at the Department of Communication
of the University of Lima. He is also Editor-in-Chief of the academic journal Contratexto and
Coordinator of the Communication and Education Research Group (IDIC-Educom). His research
focuses on media education, communication theories, and digital culture.