Social Media Literacy: A Key to Empowerment?

The internet in general and social media in particular play an increasingly important role in the personal but also in the professional and public lives of people. Additionally, the quick uptake of digital mobile devices has facilitated internet access making it available almost all the time and practically everywhere, at least for an important part of the population. The tremendous progress in accessibility to online media and the current post-desktop media ecology have undoubtedly had an impact on the ways people interact with each other and also with technology. New media, and in particular social media, have provided new avenues for information, entertainment and socialisation which transcend the traditional physical spaces these social practices where once confined to. Nevertheless, only a minority of users seem to be able to take full advantage of what social media have to offer. Using social media in an empowering way is, therefore, not always evident. The blurring of these formerly distinctive spaces poses important societal challenges and new types of (e.g. commercial or privacy-related) risks have emerged.

As a result, this new socially-mediated environment demands specific literacies from the population. General literacy does not seem to be sufficient anymore, every member of society must also become digital or even “social media literate”. Only then will they be able to understand the consequences of their online actions, and to make informed decisions whenever they engage in online activities such as publishing or sharing parts of their (and other people`s) lives online. Many policy-makers believe that in order to deal with the challenges social media currently poses, an approach that empowers users is the most efficient. Social media literacy can be seen as a powerful mechanism for citizens of all ages to use online services to their advantage, without losing control over their (online) privacy. The empowerment of citizens must go hand in hand with knowledge, reflection and active participation. Throughout our research, a number of general recommendations on social media literacy emerged:

  • An adequate (social) media literacy level must not be the privilege of a few, but a basic resource for development, equality and participation for all. It is timely that media education reaches all citizens, including children, the professionally active population, the elderly, as well as the most deprived sectors of society. We need to promote new strategies for media literacy programmes, not only for vulnerable groups: elderly people, low-income families, people with disabilities and other minority groups, but also for citizens in general. Having access to the internet or social media does not guarantee being able to use them in a responsible, useful, positive or critical way. This is why higher order (social) media literacy skills for all segments of society must be promoted.
  • Stakeholder participation is needed for more user-centred and meaningful (social) media literacy policies. Such policies should be thought, designed, implemented and evaluated in ways that foster the iterative, permanent engagement and active participation of all stakeholders. Different methods and techniques can serve this purpose, for instance participatory and co-design
  • (Social) media literacy policy should be built upon high quality, independent research and be subject to continuous evaluation. The above recommendations can only be effectively implemented if they are based on grounded, robust and up-to-date research. We need compelling evidence to guide the programs and actions designed to support (social) media literacy. Each of these initiatives should be adequately evaluated, a step that is very often neglected or “postponed” and for which usually no funding is reserved. In the long run, however, adequate evaluations should lead to more efficient and less expensive initiatives.

For more information or recommendations, you can read the White Paper “Social media literacy: Time for an update!” available on the EMSOC website.

This article gives the views of the author(s), and does not represent the position of CiTiP, nor of the University of Leuven.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR — Valerie Verdoodt @ValeVerdo

Valerie Verdoodt is a legal researcher at KU Leuven CiTiP - imec. Her research focuses on privacy, data protection, social media (literacy), advertising and the protection of minors. Valerie is currently working on the AdLit Project which studies minors' advertising literacy in a new media environment.

View all posts by Valerie Verdoodt
ABOUT THE AUTHOR — Verónica Donoso @ValeVerdo

View all posts by Verónica Donoso


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