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‘Getting off mute’ – Ofcom’s approach to online literacy

Published: 6 December 2021
Last updated: 17 March 2023

Yih-Choung Teh, Ofcom's Group Director for Strategy, introduces our new approach to promoting online media literacy in the UK.

If the last two years have taught us anything, it’s that being online is vital to keeping us connected to the world around us. For many of us, that means staying in touch with family and friends; for others it’s about working from home or helping our children to learn remotely.

For lots of people, ‘you’re on mute’ was the most-heard phrase of the various lockdowns. But for others, the change to our everyday lives during the pandemic provided a reason to discover their digital ‘voice’ for the first time. Whether it was learning how to email or video call, shopping online, or streaming their favourite films and TV shows. And then there’s people who went online to find out how to play a musical instrument, speak a new language, start jobs, perform online or take part in virtual pub quizzes.

All of those activities required a level of knowledge and skill to navigate how to do them online. To be able to do those things – and to enjoy the benefits of being online safely and with confidence – is what it is to be media literate.

Media literacy is a way to build a safer life online and at the same time is the ticket to fully participating in our society. The ability to get online in a safe, informed way helps us to access government services, secure the best deals from utility companies, look after our finances, do our shopping and enjoy our favourite entertainment. For millions of teenagers, gaming and sharing online is their primary social currency. Participation online is the gateway to inclusion at school. Our children must be able to enjoy their digital playground safely. For older people, hours alone can be punctuated by video calls, or they can access healthcare services remotely. Our grandparents have to be able to talk to their families, their doctors and conduct their affairs safely. For many people media literacy is the ability to think critically about where information comes from – whether that’s news, celebrity gossip or health information.

Our children must be able to enjoy their digital playground safely

Media literacy matters for so many reasons. It matters that we can all participate online. It matters that those on the edges of our society can also benefit from being connected. It matters that we all know not just how to stay safe online, but to have the skills and confidence to flourish online; to do the things we enjoy, access the services we need, and connect with those we love.

Some people can already do this really well. They are confident online and can access resources and support when they need them. But this is not the case for everyone. Online media literacy provision for large groups within our community – the elderly, the vulnerable, those with protected characteristics or from minority groups, or speakers of other languages – is simply not accessible, either because it doesn’t exist or because it’s hard for them to find.

Of course, media literacy has to be more than just what we do ourselves. The platforms and services we use have a responsibility in this area too. Whether that’s nudging us to read content before sharing, putting children’s accounts to default private or making clear that top search results are adverts.

Ofcom is on a mission to make communications work for everyone – and online media literacy is a crucial part of that. That’s why I’m delighted that this document details the five ways in which we’re addressing online media literacy. Some strands, like our flagship research into the nations’ media use and attitudes, are long-standing and well respected. Other areas are newer for us – for example, we’ll be commissioning pilot programmes to better serve under-served groups. And we’ll be working with platforms and service providers – not just to understand what they do already – but to create a consensus around best practice to drive improvements to the platforms themselves. We’ve recruited experts to help us do this job in the best possible way, and we’ll continue to strengthen our skills and expertise in these areas.

Empowering people to have the confidence to ‘get off mute’ – to broaden their online horizons and improve their critical literacy in today’s fast-paced digital world – is a shared endeavour. And so our door is open to interested individuals or organisations who want to contribute to or participate in the ambitious work set out in our plan. Together, we can make a digital difference in people’s lives.

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