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Youth and media literacy: EU – US lessons and practices

Published on 30 October 2017
Updated on 05 April 2024

Technology is neither good nor bad, nor is it neutral, thus, Internet governance is by no means black and white. The governance concept adds a series of nuances for regulatory measures to prepare and protect users, particularly the most vulnerable ones, such as youth.

In public policy, one learns that everything appears to go according to plan until an event shifts priorities and starts dialogues; and, thus it has been since the post-truth era began. Both in Europe and in the United States, recent events have raised the question of information vs. misinformation. As ‘information’ is spread online by a wide range of end-users, policy makers aim to make regulations that protect and empower users, often using media literacy as a tool to enable the user to navigate in a safe and conscious manner.

In the digital era, critical thinking has become the password for deciphering the bulk of online content that invades our cyberspace daily. According to Sonia Livingstone, a proper understanding of digital space should allow users, both youth and adults, ‘to access, analyse, evaluate and create messages across a variety of contexts’. For today’s youth – so-called digital natives – media literacy is increasingly perceived as sine qua non.

Millennials and post-millennials appear so comfortable with digital technology that previous generations stand somewhere between puzzled and impressed. Nevertheless, if pre-millennials walked a mile in the digital natives’ shoes – or followed in their digital footprints – would they discover that the youngest generation of Internet users are media savvies or would they debunk the myth of digital natives? Would they discover that media literacy lessons and practices boost more than digital skills, crosscutting youth involvement in the world of Internet governance?

Setting the regulatory background

On both sides of the Atlantic, examples of regulation, from data protection to media literacy for youth, have been emerging not just as a result of focusing events, but also following in-depth research, monitoring and a complex decision making process.

In 1998, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) became federal law in the US. The 2013 update, as explained in the paper by Kathryn C Montgomery and Jeff Chester, includes provisions on child online protection, encompassing aspects such as user geolocation collected from mobile devices, photos, and cookies. COPPA only provides safeguards for children under 13 – which in 2017 qualify as the post-millennials. It regulates websites and digital content providers that are either designed to target children under 13 or that have actual knowledge of children using their services.

In the EU, the 1995 Data Protection Directive followed a typical reform path on the current European Digital Agenda: the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) was adopted on 14 April 2016, to apply from 25 May 2018. Concerning minors, one of its most debated articles has been Article 8, tackling the age of consent for online services, specifically the requirements regarding parental consent for the processing of personal data of children under 16. Better Internet for Kids points out that while dealing with youth data online, and raising several challenges, the GDPR is not the regulation that tackles the youth’s media literacy in the EU. For that, one needs to look to the Audiovisual Media Service Directive, which is currently under review and aims to  bring clearer rules for protecting children online.

Building on the 2012 European Commission’s European Strategy for a Better Internet for Children, and driven by the Digital Single Market force, the Alliance to better protect minors online was created in 2016. This self-regulatory initiative – signed by various US and international technology and civil society organisations – aims to improve the online environment for children and youth, tackling user empowerment, enhanced collaboration and awareness raising.

Although the EU and US regulatory frameworks often reflect their respective continental realities, online services bridge the two continents through the continuous flow of information and data. Since 2016, this has fallen under the Privacy Shield framework protecting the fundamental rights of anyone in the EU whose personal data is transferred to the US as well as bringing legal clarity for businesses relying on transatlantic data transfers.

Tracking media literacy

Online services are organised according to the regulatory schemes in their country of origin and registration. In Where policy and practice collide, Monica Bulger et al. point out that they thereby transcend the administrative and cultural borders that have historically been essential for effecting regulatory control over traditional or legacy media. Social media – and largely, the Internet as a whole – is an attention economy, where the most valued content is that which is most likely to attract attention. The notion of instant gratification is so contagious that scrolling quickly through news, stories and profiles gives youngsters a unique sense of recognition. A 2016 Ofcom report found that in the EU, nearly a third of 12 to 15 year olds ‘who go online say that they have ever signed petitions, shared news stories on social media, written comments or talked online about  the news’. A Common Sense survey shows that in the US, 39% of children choose to get their news via social media, and 70% say it makes them feel smart and knowledgeable.

Nonetheless, finding reliable information is a complex and challenging task for any information consumer, especially for young people, as Miriam J Metzger and her collaborators point out. Outside the land of techno-optimism, teaching young people to grow into media savvies has become the mission of many stakeholders in the world-wide-web. A report of the European Audiovisual Observatory shows that almost a third of the main media literacy stakeholders identified in the 28 EU countries were categorised as ‘civil society’, and all countries recorded the main stakeholders as coming from civil society. Scratching beneath the surface, other examples appear, such as the Insafe network of Safer Internet Centres in Europe mapping, aimed at empowering youth to adapt good media habits, and guiding parents and professionals to support their use of online media and digital technologies.

Within the context of increasing the internationalisation of digital convergence and of media (and information) literacy (MIL), the sharing of experience and expertise among decision-makers and the other actors involved is crucial in order to avoid inequalities in Europe and beyond. In the US, initiatives such as Let’s Invest Large in Youth (LILY) have created partnerships between youth advocates, calling for the creation of a state-based advisory committee composed of educators, administrators, researchers, and parents who will work under the oversight of the state education agency and mandate that districts must review their policies and procedures on digital citizenship, internet safety, and media literacy annually. The US National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) is the leading voice, convener and resource for fostering critical thinking and effective communication and empowered media participation, working on campaigns such as Media Literacy Week.

From young media savvies to bright digital citizens

On both sides of the Atlantic, existing regulatory developments complemented by media literacy initiatives envision active and responsible youth in the online community, ultimately becoming well-equipped digital citizens. They all have an underlying long-term digital citizenship goal for youth, yet they do not specifically articulate it as being a catalyst for the youth’s role in Internet governance. Beyond mere conscious content creators or consumers, young people can make use of media literacy in order for them to understand what their role in shaping the Internet could be.

Johanna Martinsson points out in her discussion paper that, ‘media literacy can strengthen the public interest to improve socio-political conditions, enable citizens to participate actively in public discussions and deliberations to affect change, and empower citizens to fulfill their rights and obligations’. The idea of having a global governance regime for the protection of youth which supports media literacy is not new, though it may have not fulfilled its full potential just yet. That children have a right to protection when they go online is an internationally well-established principle, upheld in laws that seek to safeguard children from online abuse and exploitation. Frequent claims in this sense include a separate set of safeguards that need to be developed for teenagers, which should take into account the needs, attributes, and vulnerabilities of adolescence or as pointed in the Global Commission on Internet governance Paper Series, ‘to engage children and young people in Internet governance as a more effective stakeholder group within the ranks of civil society’.

With more than 3.5 billion end-users already, and one in three Internet users being a child, Internet governance principles and processes need to be adapted to education and the new constituency of children. In the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) Tunis Agenda, children were not mentioned as a stakeholder group, though referred to as a vulnerable group needing protection.  Nowadays, global governance initiatives such as the Global Alliance for Partnerships on Media and Information Literacy, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) NextGen Program, and Youth@IGF (Internet Governance Forum) programme have gradually incorporated youth into their agenda.

Crossing online bridges over the Atlantic, youth can access, analyse, evaluate and create messages across a variety of contexts, becoming knowledgeable digital citizens and not just a symbolic figure in the multi-stakeholder Internet mapping. To that end, how media literacy policies and practices influence youth involvement in Internet governance may be more than just a digital lesson for the next generation of Internet users.  

Fiorella Belciu is based in Brussels, currently part of the Digital Citizenship Team at European Schoolnet, focusing on youth participation, policy research and stakeholder engagement for digital skills and online safety projects. Fiorella studied Political Science, International Relations and Public Administration in Romania, Italy and Spain. Before moving to Brussels in 2015, she acquired professional experience in think-tank environments, youth participation projects, international development and diplomatic protocol. She is actively involved in Internet Governance initiatives, also as part of the ICANN Fellows program.


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