The Covid-19 pandemic shone a light on the problem of digital exclusion. Everyday activities such as doctor appointments and school classes were moved online, creating a digital divide between those with internet access and those without.

This divide led to an array of efforts by government, the third sector and industry to help get people online – not least the Digital Poverty Alliance (DPA). But there is increasing recognition that if the sector is going to get people online, there is a responsibility to help them stay safe. This is why we at Internet Matters were invited to join the Community Board for the DPA, and we are delighted to offer our support to this space.

Internet Matters is proud to be one of the UK’s most recognised and trusted providers of media literacy support. Media literacy is all about giving people the skills, knowledge, and confidence to stay safe and well online. In this blog, we offer our reflections on the media literacy sector as a whole, and asses where we are now and where we’re heading.

Last summer, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sports (DCMS) released their Media Literacy Strategy. This three-year action plan presented the government’s intention to tackle three key challenges within the sector:

  • Some parts of the population have much little to no access to media literacy provision, while others are overserved by competing programmes. For example, there are various programmes aimed at children in mainstream schools and fewer at vulnerable and hard-to-reach children and adults.
  • Unstable funding landscape. The majority of media literacy providers operate on a not-for-profit basis (including Internet Matters) and are reliant on external funding, which is unpredictable and often not sustained in the long term.
  • Limited understanding of what works. Little work is done to monitor and evaluate the impact of different interventions, especially beyond self-reported impact – often due to funding constraints. This makes it difficult to assess the effectiveness of interventions, and therefore which work should be prioritised.

In response to these issues, DCMS has stated that its aim is to support organisations to undertake media literacy activity in a more coordinated, wide-reaching, and high-quality way over the next three years. Two core themes are emerging from this effort.

Firstly, both DCMS and Ofcom are putting vulnerable and hard-to-reach users at the forefront of their thinking. This is something we at Internet Matters welcome, as it was our research that showed that young people who are vulnerable offline (such as children in care or those with disabilities) have much worse experiences online too. As a result, we pushed for the creation of the Vulnerable Users Working group, which is part of the UK Council for Internet Safety and a group we still Chair.

Conducting media literacy work with vulnerable groups requires a tailored approach. For this reason, many organisations in this space are increasingly partnering with frontline services to benefit from their expertise and reach. For example, we are thrilled to be partnering with the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) to deliver a pilot project to improve support for the region’s care leavers.

Secondly, media literacy doesn’t just have to be about putting the onus on users of tech services to look after themselves. That’s where the idea of media literacy by design comes in. An example of this would be a tool which encourages someone to check the veracity of an information source before sharing it publicly. This is an important development, as it shows that we do not need to choose between focusing on service design on the one hand or focusing on educating users on the other. The best way forward is to explore how these two things can interact to create the best possible experiences for people online.

Finally, it is important to consider the role of media literacy in the wider online safety landscape, in particular its relationship with the Online Safety Bill. In a draft version of the Bill, there was an explicit attempt to clarify Ofcom’s duty to promote media literacy. This was later removed when the current version was published. The Government maintains that Ofcom has the powers and duties it needs to progress its work in this area, but some – including us at Internet Matters – would like this to be underscored by inclusion in the Bill.

Media literacy is the first line of defence against online harms. Internet Matters is proud of our continued work with the DPA to ensure everyone has access to support in this space.

Written by Ali Bissoondath, Policy Manager at Internet Matters