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.