Apr 29 2013

Media Literacy Update: What’s Changed and Why?

By Yin-Han Wang and Sonia Livingstone

On 23 April Ofcom published its 2013 Adults’ Media Use and Attitudes Report. The report reveals some – but only some – grounds for optimism in media literacy compared with our recent assessment based on Ofcom surveys from 2005 to 2011. And it raises some pressing questions about how media literacy can be further improved.

Increase in public/civic uses

The 2013 report suggests that weekly public/civic use of the internet rose substantially from 15% of UK adults in 2011 to 25% in 2012. This may be a matter of methodology (as the latest questionnaire added ‘looking at websites for news about, or events in your local area/ the local community’ to the activities previously asked about) but perhaps the UK public is genuinely widening its range of online activities to include civic information.

Room for improvement in health-related uses

The percentage of those who have ever used the internet for health information rose a little, from 68% in 2011 to 75% in 2012. Is the quarter of the population who never take up such an opportunity missing out? Unless one can be confident that they get necessary information in other ways, a strategy is needed to reach them.

Users are concerned about internet content and security

Users’ concerns about the internet remain higher than for TV, mobile phone, gaming and radio, with offensive/illegal content users’ main concern; and concerns about online security and fraud are also on the rise. Would greater efforts in regulation and/or raising media literacy improve users’ experience of navigating content online?

Good grasp of broadcast funding sources, but no improvement

Teenager on a computer

Understanding of funding sources and risks is not always in step with use.

Public understanding is good for the funding of BBC television (77%), commercial television (69%), BBC radio (63%) and commercial radio (62%). But there is little or even no rise since 2005. Surely everyone should understand the difference between licence fee and advertising? And if they don’t, how will they grasp how the internet is funded?

Grasp of search engines funding sources too low

Public understanding of the funding for search engines remains low (36%), though it is increasing slowly over time. Given public reliance on search engines for accessing information, this figure remains problematic.

Knowledge gap persists in making judgements about new websites

The proportion of people who make some form of judgement about a new website before entering personal information has increased slightly from 79% in 2011 to 81% in 2012. But those from lower socio-economic households are still the least likely to do this. Relatedly, in 2012, 60% of internet users understood that some search engine results may be unbiased but others are not (– a slight improvement from 57% in 2011). However, only the higher socio-economic group shows a stable improvement on this measure over time.

Indications of improved media literacy remain insufficient

Given the complex and fast-changing media environment, the rate of year-by-year improvement in individual measures of media literacy suggests that UK adults are only gaining media literacy very slowly – perhaps too slowly given the benefits to be obtained. Particularly concerning is the persistent knowledge gap in media literacy that leaves those from lower socio-economic groups at a relative disadvantage. Targeted efforts to promote media literacy remain vital if everyone is to benefit from the digital age.

photo credit: Gates Foundation via photopin cc


About Sonia Livingstone

Sonia Livingstone is a professor in the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She is author or editor of sixteen books and many academic articles and chapters. Her research examines children, young people and the internet; social and family contexts and uses of ICT; media and digital literacies; the mediated public sphere; audience reception for diverse television genres; internet use and policy; public understanding of communications regulation; and research methods in media and communications. Sonia Livingstone directs a 33-country network, EU Kids Online, for the EC's Safer Internet Programme. She serves on the Executive Board of the UK's Council for Child Internet Safety, and has, at various times, served on the Department of Education's Ministerial Taskforce for Home Access to Technology for Children, Ofcom's Media Literacy Research Forum, the Voice of the Listener and Viewer, and the Internet Watch Foundation. She has advised Ofcom, Department for Children, Schools and Families, Home Office, Economic and Social Research Council, BBC, The Byron Review on children's online risk, and Higher Education Funding Council for England. She was President of the International Communication Association (2007-8).
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