This story is part of a series on parenting—from surveilling our teens to helping our kids navigate fake news and misinformation.
What does it mean for a kid to be media literate? It sounds generally positive and important, like a good dental checkup or a flawless report card. The field is broad and definitions vary, but the main thrust of literacy education is to prepare our children to be adept at accessing, creating, and thinking critically about all types of media.
As parents, we can struggle to wrap our heads around a carousel of premium, user-friendly, and questionably educational media choices. And the thought of sitting through the 57th viewing of The Land Before Time II, the longest hour and 13 minutes of juvenile folly ever created, even if it’s for our very precious child’s well-being, can be dread-inducing.
Among millennials, the first generation of “digital natives,” 17 million are now mothers—but their recollections of navigating AOL Instant Messenger and Napster as tweens haven’t necessarily prepared them to curate a child-friendly media diet in 2020.
According to the latest research, though, encouraging your children to think critically about the media they’re consuming is much more important than playing screen-time babysitter. You don’t have to wait until your kids are able to deconstruct Toni Morrison novels either. Basic media literacy skills are like a second alphabet for the digital age, and fostering them in our children involves asking questions and being an active participant in their media consumption. Here are some age-appropriate tips from a handful of media literacy experts who also happen to moonlight as parents.
Start 'Em Early
A few years ago, on Christmas morning, my 5-year-old daughter squealed with unhinged glee as she unwrapped a Num Noms Lip Gloss Truck. It was all she had wanted for Christmas and she quickly broke down the packaging to discover that the lip gloss, despite looking like ice cream, was not at all edible. It smelled edible and looked like glittery unicorn poop, but the treacherous instruction manual revealed the truth of the matter.
It was a hard lesson. Even if the jubilant ponytailed girl on the commercial was depicted tasting the gloop, my daughter could not, and those diabolical marketers had tricked her. Developmental psychologists say that children younger than 7 or 8 simply can’t understand the persuasive intent behind commercials. Because of this cognitive limitation, media literacy efforts have long ignored this younger age group, focusing on middle and high school students instead. But media literacy, like any other skill, can benefit from a strong foundation in the early years, according to Faith Rogow, an expert in early childhood literacy and the founding president of the National Association for Media Literacy Education.
“It's easier to help children develop habits around media use, inquiry, and reflection in the early years than it is to wait until they are defiant middle schoolers,” Rogow says. Introducing a child to the difference between a commercialized version of a product or toy—say a polka-dot pink truck filled with Kawaii-eyed ice cream animals and miniature glitter shakers—and the toy itself can be one way to break down that cognitive barrier. Your 5-year-old might just shake their tiny fist at the injustice of the sticky, inedible reality.
You can also play the “What are they trying to sell?” game with kids this age, Rogow says. During a commercial break, see who in the family can be the first to guess what the ad is trying to sell. Most of all, parents should be aware of their own media habits.
“Think of it like driving,” Rogow says. “We’re not going to turn over the car keys to our toddlers, so we aren’t exactly teaching them to drive yet, but they are learning about rules of the road from what we do.”
At the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library in North Carolina, media literacy educator and doctoral student Jimmeka Anderson helped establish an “active reading” program for young kids. “With active reading, parents do not read the words in the book,” Anderson says. “As you go through the pictures in the book, you’re asking questions like, ‘What color is this bear? What do you think the bear is going to do?’” Anderson says this is a way to build media literacy skills beginning in preschool, equipping kids to become critical thinkers by helping them take an active role in their consumption of pictures and other visual media.
Don’t Fear the Algorithm
Ian O’Byrne is a digital literacy researcher and former grade school teacher, but he also has two very accessible research subjects: his son, 9, and daughter, 4. In 2019, O’Byrne, along with five other researcher-parents, conducted a study on an oft-overlooked branch of digital literacy—information security and algorithms, specifically how children interact with and understand them.
“These algorithms make decisions about our lives,” O’Byrne says. “We started to wonder, when should we start talking to individuals about algorithms and power and about trust and truth in these tools? How do we explain this to our kids?”
He acknowledges that even most adults don’t fully comprehend what happens to our information online or on the internet of things, so getting a more thorough grasp of digital security and information-sharing is an important place for parents to start.
O’Byrne and his colleagues haven’t yet published their results, but he says they’ve found two effective strategies that stand out. The first is to find a teachable moment or “approach point” to discuss these issues with your children.
For O’Byrne, the moment came when his son, who has a Google Hangouts account to keep in touch with his parents and a few select friends, was messaged by a complete stranger. On his parenting and tech podcast Technopanic, O’Byrne and colleague Kristen Turner dissect the situation. “He brought it to my attention and I said, ‘Look, this is what you need to be concerned about,’ and we talked about privacy and security,” O’Byrne said. “So I think the first step is finding that approach point and either waiting for them to come to you with a situation, or there might be the need to create a situation.”
Creating that situation is the second strategy. It can take the form of talking about something in the news or finding a good picture book or story, or even using a real-life situation your children are familiar with, like a playground, to discuss security concepts.
The next time you snap a photo together at the park or a restaurant, try asking your child if it’s all right that you post it to social media. Use the opportunity to talk about who can see that photo and show them your privacy settings. Or if a news story about the algorithms on YouTube comes on television, ask them if they’ve ever been directed to a video they didn’t want to see.
“Dialog is the most important thing,” O’Byrne says, but it’s also important to talk about the digital world in a way that’s relatable to your kids. O’Byrne and his colleagues will submit their final paper to the Journal of Design Science in February. (Disclosure: The call for proposals for a special issue of the journal was sponsored by WIRED, the MIT Media Lab, and the UC Irvine Connected Learning Lab.)
What About Teens?
Perhaps the most vulnerable period for children engaged with media are the much maligned teenage years. Teens are forming their identities, experimenting with and exposing themselves to all sorts of new experiences on their journey to adulthood.
At this stage, a lot of parents sign off from regulating their kids’ media consumption, but Anderson says this is a critical mistake. “Parents have got to stick with them the whole way through,” Anderson says. “That’s the age of identity development, when they’re trying to figure out who they are. If you’re trying to figure out who you are and you haven’t figured it out, media will tell you who you should be, or who you should try to be.”
Anderson started a program in 2011 called I Am Not the Media, a nonprofit that educates teens about media literacy and messaging. She focuses particularly on marginalized communities, where representation in the media is often not positive and can influence teens’ perceptions of themselves. “The kids are having to analyze power structures and how they play out in the media,” Anderson says. “Is my voice missing, and what would it look like if my voice was present here?”
One of her favorite things is seeing the “light bulb” come on with her students, when they begin to analyze media on their own terms. “They’ll share that with me, because now they’re starting to engage with the media in a different way,” Anderson says.
Parents should take on more of an advisory role during the teen years, she says. It’s still important to have restrictions, but we’re not equipping them for the world if we shield them from it entirely. Anderson suggests that parents work with their kids to come up with reasonable limits. Excessive social media use is linked to depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues, so come to an agreement with your child about how much is too much. It’s also important to follow your kids’ social media accounts.
“I can still engage with you and see the content that you’re posting, because if you can’t share it with me, you shouldn’t share it at all,” Anderson says.
Teens also engage more actively with news. A 2017 report by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that promotes media education, found that among kids between age 10 and 18, 39 percent get their news from online sources, most often Facebook and YouTube.
Parents often don’t realize that their children are taking in news through these platforms, says Kelly Mendoza, the senior director of education programs at Common Sense Media. “It’s more difficult to determine fact versus fiction when it comes to social media.” Only 44 percent of kids feel confident that they can tell fake news from real news, according to the same 2017 report.
In its curriculum for middle and high school students, Common Sense uses a technique called lateral reading. If you find a piece of information, you try to see if you can corroborate it with another source. Ideally, parents should encourage kids to verify information through trusted news outlets.
“Help kids understand that journalism has a process, where a journalist does fact checking and they try to get to the truth of an issue,” Mendoza says. “A lot of stuff that we see on social media isn’t designed that way. It’s designed to get you to click on it.”
On the flip side, kids in this age range trust news they hear from their parents more than any other source. Across the board, experts agree that staying informed and media savvy as an adult is critical. If you don’t have a clue what’s going on in the run-up to the presidential election, or what the fluff Fortnite is all about, you’d be hard pressed to help your children understand it.
“We’re more likely to believe things that we hear from our friends and family than from any random information source,” Anderson says. “So you are a form of media, and it’s important for you to vet the information that you’re sharing as well.”
The key, Anderson explains, is not to tell your children how it is but to teach them how to question why it is. If this seems at odds with how many of us remember our upbringing, that’s because it is. The authoritarian “Because I said so” refrain of old has been linked to lower academic performance and poor emotional regulation.
So while it may cause a few headaches in the present to coach your children to willfully ask “why,” you’ll be setting them up for an adulthood where they don’t default to the latest social media platform or authority figure to answer that question for them.
Here are the books, apps, podcasts, and websites the experts recommend.
A guide to screens in moderation for busy families: The Art of Screen Time: How Your Family Can Balance Digital Media and Real Life by Anya Kamenetz
A non-Draconian guide to media for younger kids: Screen Time: How Electronic Media—From Baby Videos to Educational Software—Affects Your Young Child by Lisa Guernsey
An app created by the News Literacy Project that features a game quiz-style approach to teaching literacy on the go: Informable
A news app specifically curated for 7- to 10-year-olds: News-O-Matic
A podcast by Ian O’Byrne and Kristen Turner that aims to muffle the urge to helicopter our kids’ screen use: Technopanic
Thousands of media reviews, how-to and discussion guides for parents and educators on a wide range of media topics: Common Sense Media
Activities and videos for kids and parents on identity and representation in media: Critical Media Project
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