How to Raise Media-Savvy Kids in the Digital Age

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.

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