Communication Currents

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A Call for Digital Media Literacy Education Focused on Adult Populations

August 27, 2018
Digital Communication & Gaming, Instructional Communication, Mass Communication

In recent years, increasing concerns about data collection and surveillance, fake news and misinformation, data hacks, and phishing scams have led to a variety of organized education efforts and initiatives aimed at promoting digital media literacy. According to Nicole M. Lee of North Carolina State University, much of this work is focused on social media safety for children and adolescents. In a new essay in NCA’s journal Communication Education, Lee calls for more research into effective digital media literacy interventions that occur outside the traditional classroom – specifically for adults and nondigital natives.

According to FBI data, “there were more cybercrimes committed against people 60 years and older than any other age group” in 2016. Further, “older Americans are less likely to report scams because they are ashamed or do not want family members to think their mental capacities are declining.” While Lee acknowledges that not all cybercrimes are avoidable, she asserts that there should be more research on effective strategies for educating adults “about safe social media use, including protecting one’s privacy, recognizing false information, and avoiding scams.” And, she believes that “communication and instructional scholars have a unique opportunity to make an important contribution to research in this area.” Lee outlines some specifics in three areas:

Evaluating Information and Sources

With the increase in online satirical news, hoaxes, and propaganda, people are bombarded with misinformation and misleading information, which can and has affected political agendas and elections. Lee notes that prior research has found that “it can be very difficult to undo the effects of misinformation once individuals believe it to be true.” She suggests that teaching audiences to be skeptical might be a more effective approach. She also recommends that further research “should inform which messages are the most effective and how best to deliver them to the general adult population.” Additionally, she suggests that media literacy interventions should happen across multiple sessions, and that researchers compare different formats of educational tools and interventions explore “the desired affective, cognitive, and behavioral learning outcomes; the retention of the learning outcomes over time; and attrition rate for the longer series.” Finally, research should factor in the variables that are relevant to adult populations, such as political ideology, age, gender, and preferences related to consuming information.

Privacy and Social Media

Children and older adults are among the most frequently targeted victims of identity fraud online, but Lee says that “simply making people aware of the risk is not adequate for changing behavior.” Again, she recommends that future research examine which risk communication messages and channels would be most effective at adjusting people’s online behaviors. If communication scholars could evaluate educational campaigns and other interventions targeting adults, they may be able to pinpoint knowledge gaps and then design instructional materials to correct them – especially if they are able to show social media users that they can do something about online privacy threats.

Scams and Phishing

As noted earlier, older adults are the most common victims of online scams and phishing. The author writes that current research on risk education for vulnerable populations is limited and focuses on health education, but studies have found that older adults participate in educational activities based on a desire to keep an active mind and be a lifelong learner – hence, these motivations could “inform instructional communication strategies for gaining interest in online safety programing.”

In conclusion, Lee believes that communication researchers have an opportunity, and a responsibility, “to engage in high impact research for the good of society.” Further, she writes, an increased focus on older adult populations could “lead to an improved quality of life” for this vulnerable population.

This essay was translated from the scholarly article: Lee, Nicole M. (2018). “Fake news, phishing, and fraud: a call for research on digital media literacy education beyond the classroom.” Communication Education. doi: 10.1080.03634523.2018.1503313.

About the author (s)

Nicole M. Lee

North Carolina State University

Assistant Professor

Nicole M. Lee