In this, Dec. 20, 2017 photo, Jennifer Rocca, left, a teacher librarian at Brookfield, Conn., High School, left, works with Ariana Mamudi, 14, a freshman in her Digital Student class. The required class teaches media literacy skills and has the students scrutinize sources for their on-line information. (AP Photo/Stephen Dunn)

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We’re all dealing with a lot right now. We’re experiencing health and economic crises. Many of us are learning and working from home with little support. And we’re only two weeks away from Election Day.

All of these issues are contributing to another crisis that doesn’t receive as much attention: media saturation and exhaustion. We are inundated with political messages around the election and misinformation around the pandemic, and we’re also more reliant on media technologies than ever before.

Do we have the critical tools to cope with and make sense of all this media dominating our attention? Media literacy education is more important now than ever.

Over the last few months, due to the pandemic, we’ve all likely been spending even more time in front of screens. For those students whose learning has moved online, that means virtually all of their educational and social needs are being mediated through screens.

This is a great opportunity to shift our conversations around screen time from how much we are using screens to how we are using screens — from media safety to media literacy. The rush to move learning online has not only exposed the digital divide that persists in regard to access, but also the deep divides in regard to educational equity. Without media literacy, these divides will continue to increase, disproportionately affecting low-income and rural communities in Maine and beyond.

Media literacy is the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create, and act using all forms of media, including news, advertising, video games, digital media and social media. It’s an expansion of traditional literacy that accounts for all the ways we process and produce information. The goal of media literacy education is to empower active citizens to be critical thinkers and responsible producers of media.

Unfortunately, we are failing to meet the challenges to learning that the 21st century demands. On average, teens in the U.S. spend nearly seven and a half hours every day with entertainment media — more time than they spend at school!

Think of all the advertisements they’re exposed to, all the clickbait and misinformation, all the drama on social media, all of their attention captured and mined for data. Think also of all the benefits that new media afford us: the skills they help us develop; the relationships and networks they allow for; and the many perspectives and voices they amplify. Media have so much power to influence us in both positive and negative ways, yet we aren’t critically engaging with media in our classrooms and we aren’t utilizing media as the powerful tools for learning they can be.

We are also in the midst of a global epidemic of misinformation. The “infodemic” around the coronavirus has exacerbated a problem we’ve largely neglected for more than a decade: That there is a glut of information available to us that we don’t have the time or skills to make sense of.

Young people especially find it difficult to identify where information comes from online or to distinguish the credible from the fake. In a recent report, when teens were asked to identify the sources of news they most trusted on social media and YouTube, the most commonly mentioned were PewDiePie, CNN, Trevor Noah, Donald Trump, and Beyoncé. All five of those will likely raise eyebrows.

We’re drowning in media and misinformation, we’re in the middle of a tragic health crisis and we have an election in two weeks. How important is it to you that people are not only able to access information effectively, but that they’re also able to critically analyze and evaluate that information before they risk their health or cast their ballots?

The need for media literacy education is more urgent now than ever before. Maine should lead this fight, as we’ve been a leader in so many other fights. There are legislative efforts happening across the country to make sure that media literacy is an essential component of formal education.

Next week (Oct. 26-30) is national media literacy week. Let your school and community leaders know you think media literacy is vital to the education and health of our students and our democracy. You can also participate in media literacy week through the free, virtual News Literacy Challenge, from the University of Maine’s Fogler Library and Department of Communication Journalism.

Alan Berry is a PhD student at the University of Maine and the Maine state chapter leader for Media Literacy Now. This column reflects his views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of the university. He is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.