How Will We Ever Master AI If We Can’t Get Media Literacy Right?

Artificial Intelligence is a flim-flam factory.  Ask it to create real-sounding images, videos, even code, and AI will happily oblige, at a speed and scale that no human could produce on their own. In other words, disinformation is about to flex: easy to spread, now even easier to make.   


Media and digital literacy skills couldn’t be more vital.  So it’s a shame we’re still not universally serious about teaching them.  

Research from the past decade bears this out. In 2015, fewer than 4 percent of 7th graders were able to identify and evaluate the source for science information they read online.


If we want our students to thrive online, if we want them to be creators and consumers of the beautiful, complex, dangerous, and illuminating online tapestry our globe is weaving, we need to get this right.  

And we’re behind schedule.

A Quarter of the Way into the New Millennium, We Still Struggle Online

Public-facing elements of the Internet have been arounds since the early 1990’s.  It’s not new or even new-ish anymore.  But our education system is only now beginning to grapple with it in ways that make sense. How did this happen? 

Part of the issue is that media literacy often feels like someone else’s problem.  Do history teachers own media literacy?  Or English teachers?  Do parents? Do we all? 

While we whistled past the graveyard, two big shifts occurred under our noses: kids started going online earlier and earlier, and they got deeply invested in social media, which correlated with some pretty terrifying trends

We’re not looking to cast blame—U.S. sluggishness on media literacy work was, in part, a question of human nature.  We tried to wait technology out, assuming that this next generation would be “digital natives” able to teach the rest of us how to thrive online because they grew up with it.  Turns out, that was a big myth.

The Need for Earlier Media Literacy Education

Still, one thing is true about digital natives.  They’re now online at very early ages. In 2020, the Pew Research Center found that 81% of parents say their child watches YouTube videos.  That number wasn’t for teenagers.  It was for 3- and 4-year-olds.  No wonder two thirds of parents feel raising a child today is harder than it was 20 years ago.  They cited technology as a main reason why. 


Schools didn’t totally sleep on this.  We both are proud of the work we did as high school teachers to prepare our students to think more critically about the news. 

But we’ve come to believe that our work came far later in our students’ journeys than it might have been, and it most certainly shouldn’t have required our own personal interest to be a part of the curriculum.  If we want to have any chance at cracking digital and media literacy with kids, then teachers and parents need to start earlier – much earlier.  

Policy makers are reaching the same conclusion: New Jersey, California, and Delaware just passed laws to requiring these skills get taught in kindergarten through 12th grade – and with bi-partisan support! (Turns out at least most politicians can agree that we’re getting duped online, even if they disagree about who is doing it and why.)  

Getting Beyond Broad Goals

Still, goals and standards are only helpful if educators actually teach them.  If you’re in New York State, for example, go ahead and ask your 7th grader how class is doing with “design[ing] a protocol for transmitting data through a multi-point network,” one of the 7-8 digital fluency standards.  Not in New York?  Maybe ask how federally-mandated “Constitution Day” went.  (Hint: it’s in September and it’s almost definitely not happening.) 

Beyond setting some broad aspirations, we’ll also need to train teachers on how to realize them. It starts with getting comfortable ourselves: helping guide students in how to read with a skeptical stance (without falling into wild distrust), how to size up credibility and expertise, and what kinds of techniques those engaging in bad faith argument might use.  

And finally, we think it’s time to reimagine the work we do with our younger students.  (You know, the ones who’ve been watching YouTube since they were three.)  They don’t need a textbook, and they don’t need someone scaring them away from going online—they’re already there, after all. There are tons of great free resources online. We’ve curated a few sites in our Teacher's Guide that can help you get started.  


But, of course, cobbling together resources takes time that many educators don’t have.  To help you get the conversation going, we’ve also written Gram and Gran Save the Summer, a book to help elementary and middle school students start building the dispositions about online information that will serve them best. 


Media literacy can feel like an impossibly large topic, but at the heart of it are a few foundational understandings about how information is created, how it can be manipulated, and how to balance healthy skepticism with open-mindedness.  It doesn’t have to feel like drudgery – our goal with Gram and Gran was to launch a discussion that never forgets how delightful the online world can be.

The Best Way to Prepare for Artificial Intelligence Is With Actual Intelligence

AI’s explosive growth has offered us a mirror of our online selves: a few of us wildly aspirational, a few of us looking to get an easy answer or make a quick buck. It has all the excitement – and, yes, danger – of exploring a new frontier. 

But explore we must, because AI has shown no indication that it’s going to slow down while we catch up.

Our kids are already online.  If we don’t help them navigate information, someone far less respectable will be more than happy to.  No one wants to be an easy mark.  And no one wants their kids to be one, either. 

Yes, the best time to get good at teaching media literacy was 20 or 30 years ago.  But the second-best time is right now.  Let’s get going.

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Artificial Intelligence and Actual Intelligence was authored by:
Stephen Chiger and Daniel Pereira

Stephen Chiger and Daniel Pereira are award-winning educators and authors of Gram and Gran Save the Summer, a book designed to teach media literacy skills to readers in elementary and middle school.

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