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Missouri Proposes ‘Media Literacy and Critical Thinking Act’

To prepare students for a world of misinformation, legislation expected to pass in early 2025 would establish guidelines to teach digital media literacy in K-12 based on pilot programs at a handful of schools.

A person using a laptop showing news on the screen.
The Show Me State is poised to let a handful of public schools figure out the dos and don’ts of teaching digital media literacy.

Missouri state Legislature House and Senate bills calling for a “media literacy and critical thinking act” passed through committees and appear to have strong support from both houses. However, with the legislative session winding down this month it’s more likely that the law would be considered in January. If passed, the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) would pilot a curriculum on media and social media literacy in five to seven school districts, according to Rep. Jim Murphy, R-St. Louis, who co-sponsored the legislation.

“Today, people just put up [on digital news and social media sites] what they want, and we’re expected to figure out what’s real and what isn’t real,” Murphy said Wednesday. “We didn’t grow up with this. Our kids need to learn how to verify and question information, and they need to know that now.”

According to Senate Bill 1311, the pilots would take place during the 2025-2026 and 2026-2027 academic years. As students are exposed to digital and social media and learn from their teachers how to discern fact from fiction, the DESE will study the results of classroom activities and develop guidelines on the safe use of social media platforms, identifying misinformation, and digital ethics and etiquette. The guidelines would be shaped into resources, learning activities, and trainings “that promote critical thinking and the skills necessary to evaluate all forms of media.”

If the law is passed, all reports from the DESE would be provided to the state Legislature by Jan. 1, 2028. From there, lawmakers could consider a state law mandating media literacy curricula in K-12 classrooms.

Murphy said the principle of this legislation was inspired by a media literacy law in Illinois, though he does not consider that measure effective because it lacked classroom input.

“[The Illinois law] is wallowed in a maze of uncertainty,” he said. “We’re looking for innovative ways of doing this, and then sharing the ways that are effective.”

The Illinois law, which took effect in the fall of 2022, requires public high schools to provide one unit of instruction on media literacy including the evaluation and analysis of media platforms, how media affects the consumption of information, and “how it triggers emotions and behavior,” according to the Illinois General Assembly website.

Julie Smith, a communications instructor at Webster University in Missouri and the state’s advocacy leader for the national Media Literacy Now organization, called Senate Bill 1311 a “great first step.” She said digital literacy curriculums in other states, though well intended, turned out to be unfunded mandates that relied too much on teachers without providing them appropriate training.

“Let’s just try it out in a few districts, and we’ll see what works,” she said. “What’s the worst that can happen?”

Smith stressed that media literacy goals cannot be achieved if the task is left entirely up to teachers at a time when children are spending upwards of 10 hours a day online. The key questions that should be asked by multiple adults in a child’s life in an objective manner: Who is the sender of this message? What information is left out? Who makes money from it?

“We just need to start talking about it everywhere — in the carpool, on the bleachers, at the kitchen table and on the couch,” Smith said, adding that she supports a minimum amount of media literacy instruction even in the younger grades. “This is absolutely existential. We are in a post-truth, post-trust world. How do we move forward?”

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures website, Missouri and 29 other U.S. states plus Puerto Rico introduced legislation this year related to youth social media use. In addition to calling for curricula on digital media literacy, some seek task forces to study social media’s affect on children’s mental health, while others propose age verification or parental consent to access certain platforms.
Aaron Gifford has several years of professional writing experience, primarily with daily newspapers and specialty publications in upstate New York. He attended the University at Buffalo and is based in Cazenovia, NY.