Today, there’s nothing media doesn’t touch, and by touching, alter. An understanding of how media messages and mass media systems shape society has always been important, but never more so than in today’s wall-to-wall media environment. An elevation of the public discourse around media and the type of education needed to prepare our children, and all of us, to adapt to this new reality is urgently needed.

Multiple studies have shown that many young people lack the media and information-literacy skills they need to be competent communicators in the 21st century. Many don’t venture beyond the top result when searching online and lack the critical skills to assess the validity of online-search results and identify the sources and credibility of information from both online and other media.

The solution is media literacy education for all students, kindergarten through grade 12. Media literacy provides foundational skills for digital citizenship that help children use technology in thoughtful, ethical and responsible ways. Yes, schools are overwhelmed. Often that’s because they are spending time and resources dealing with the results of not addressing issues arising from the media that consumes tweens and teens for six to nine hours a day.

Most people haven’t heard the term “media literacy,” but they’ve been practicing it to some extent. We analyze visual and audio messages as well as written words daily. Young and old are telling stories through social outlets such as Twitter and Snapchat. Parents often explain to their children that the advertisement for the cool toy may not reflect reality.

But with today’s advanced technology and sophisticated marketing techniques, students need instruction that’s more intentional and comprehensive.

Media literacy:

  • expands the concept of literacy, as today’s messages come in many forms and literacy can no longer refer simply to the ability to read and write;
  • offers a solution to public health issues, such as body image issues and substance use, exacerbated by toxic media messages; and
  • empowers all people to engage in a global media environment.

Children are consuming and creating media at unprecedented rates and with little guidance.

The proliferation of personal electronic mobile devices among children, for example, giving direct access to them by large corporations as well as any individual who can write an app, is a fundamental shift. While social media tools are empowering to people and organizations throughout the world, missteps can be devastating. We’ve seen the extremes: cyberbullying that pushes children to suicide, lives and careers ruined by public shaming and humiliation.

Teachers, administrators and parents should not be left to face these issues alone, without resources, and without the community conversations necessary to figure out how to address these challenges. Our children’s future can’t be left to chance. It’s well past time to begin the big picture conversations on how to face the challenges of this new digital media world.

Many effective programs and curricula have been created, but the programs are not getting into the schools quickly enough as administrators and teachers deal with more immediate daily pressures. Policy is the next step to ensure that these critical skills are elevated as a priority in our schools. New Jersey is already ahead of most states in requiring schools to teach responsible use of social media in middle schools as of 2014. That’s a start, and should be implemented.

Sen. Diane Allen (R), who will retire at the end of this session, has been a leader on this issue. Allen, who as a former television news anchor, knows well the power of media, first introduced a bill calling for media literacy education in 2000, to implement a recommendation of the 1999 Assembly Task Force on Adolescent Violence. The task force found that when children view media violence it can contribute to increased aggressive and anti-social behavior, and desensitization to violence and its victims.

As violent images in the media have only increased in frequency, intensity and ubiquity over the last 15 years, the urgency of this issue has risen in commensurate measure. Sen. Allen’s commonsense bill simply asks for an education priority shift rather than any mandates.

The current bill, S-436, cosponsored by Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz (D) has been approved by the state Senate. A companion bill, A-4141, is sponsored by Assemblyman Paul D. Moriarty (D). What a fitting way to honor Sen. Allen’s commitment to this issue it would be to take this bill to the governor’s desk, and thereby launch a broad public discussion about the comprehensive media literacy skills that must be intentionally integrated into all subjects at all grade levels – and strategies to get there.

The New Jersey School Boards Association supports both bills.

Our children need life skills to call upon throughout their lives, as consumers, workers, citizens and parents of the next generation. They require a new form of literacy that enables them to critically consume and produce digital media.

Media literacy is literacy in the 21st century. We can’t afford not to teach it.

Erin McNeill is a national authority on media literacy policy, and founder of Media Literacy Now, an education policy initiative and advocacy organization.