Recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics grudgingly recognized the diversity of activities available using electronic screens and they have acknowledged that minimal screen time for toddlers and preschoolers might not ruin children for life and, in some cases, might even have some benefit. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that part of me wants to say, “I told you so”; I’ve been arguing for at least twenty years that, unless you are talking about very heavy users, what children do with screens is more important than counting the minutes they spend with the devices. If the content or activity is harmful, then the amount of acceptable screen time should be zero. But what if they are doing media literacy?
The thing is, you can’t teach media literacy skills without allowing children to engage with media, including some electronic screens. If it were up to me, I’d mandate purposeful use of digital media as a requirement for credentialing, but I understand why many early childhood professionals resist.
Whether they are
- getting push back from well-meaning (but ill-informed) parents,
- limited by administrators who shun screens as if doing so earned their programs some sort of merit badge,
- subject to evaluations using antiquated quality rating scales that designate screens as a waste of time, or
- simply lack confidence in their own tech skills,
too many early childhood professionals reject media literacy because it involves use of screen media.
We should always look at screen time relative to other activities, using media mindfully and with intention and ensuring that it is part of a balanced day of rich and varied activities. That said, here are my top 15 responses to those who continue to resist integrating media literacy into early childhood education:
- We live in a digital world. A quick look at a favorite website, online news source, or social network reveals that the digital world routinely merges print, image, and audio. The only way that children will thrive in this world – and harness the power that has traditionally accrued to those who are literate – is to learn how to “read” and “write” with pictures and sound, as well as with text.
- Young children are already using media technologies, and they will continue to use them with or without us. Better that they use them with us. Otherwise their technology habits are likely to come from marketers, peers, or others who don’t care about children as much as we do, and who may not share our values or expertise. By the way, early childhood professionals are also already using media technologies, both in their personal lives and with children. Media literacy provides the guidance they need to use that technology well and avoid modeling bad habits that children have to unlearn later.
- It’s our job to prepare children for the world we live in, not for the world that existed when our education system was designed. When the U.S. school system was developed, books, magazines, and newspapers – all forms of mass media – were the primary method of disseminating uniform information to a lot of people. So every year that a child is in school, they are required to spend a considerable amount of time learning read and analyze print media. It’s time to update our efforts by recognizing that access to digital media technologies changes our relationship to information. Media literacy education gives educators a way to help children develop the judgment and ethics they need to navigate their online lives.
- A commitment to equal opportunity demands that we address the “digital divide.” Digital media technologies are central to the worlds of learning, work, and citizenship; that, alone obligates us to use classrooms, libraries, and child care sites to provide tech opportunities for children with limited home access. But the digital divide isn’t just about access; it’s also about whether or not children use devices productively. Media literacy education methods help early childhood educators model effective technology use, give children carefully scaffolded opportunities to practice, and encourage youngsters to share what they know with one another.
- The digital world does more than combine modes of communication; it also merges the means of communication. As today’s preschoolers grow into adolescence, they won’t be choosing between computers, televisions, radios, music players, game consoles, e-readers, or phones; everything will routinely be accessed through a single device. That means the things we want children to do will be hard to separate from things to which we would prefer they not have access. And in a world where traditional adult “gatekeeping” of media content is less and less possible, it is essential to teach children how to analyze and evaluate content for themselves.
- Communication with image and sound is a natural for preschoolers who don’t yet have text-based language skills. Digital cameras (including those in phones and tablets) allow young children to escape the limits of their existing fine motor skills and nascent vocabulary by enabling them to communicate ideas, create art, interact socially, and recall events, in rich and complex ways.
- Media literacy education approaches technologies as tools, not learning outcomes. The goal of media literacy education isn’t technology use; it’s to prepare children to thrive in a media and technology-rich world. That approach keeps the emphasis where it should be: on sound pedagogy and learning. So media literacy lesson planning starts with the question, “What do we want children to learn?” Only then do we look at how digital devices and media literacy methods can help accomplish the goals.
- Education is never a game of “keep away.” It may be easier to ‘just say no’ to screens than to help children (and their teachers) learn how to use media tech in healthy and productive ways, but just as we can’t teach children to read by keeping them away from books, we can’t teach them to be media literate by keeping them away from media, including screen media.
This is especially true because young children don’t typically apply learning from one domain to another. So even if we talk with preschoolers about books and consciously teach critical inquiry skills in the process, they won’t necessarily use those skills in relation to electronic media. If we want children to apply reasoning and reflection to all the media they use and create, we have to model that habit and provide opportunities to practice. That doesn’t mean allowing hours of daily screen time – media literacy is not an “anything goes” approach to technology. But it does require that we use screen media with children on a regular basis.
- Children don’t gain critical inquiry skills by osmosis just because they use technology. That’s why media literacy education infuses technology use with thinking and reasoning in developmentally appropriate ways. Those who are most concerned about negative media effects should be the first to adopt media literacy because the essence of the method is analysis, reflection, awareness, and action.
- We should believe the research, not the headlines. Research has unquestionably shown that screen time can have negative effects, but in the vast majority of cases the concern-worthy findings apply only to “heavy” users/viewers. Most parents and educators don’t actually read the research, so they miss that nuance. Instead, dramatic news headlines (intended to sell, more than inform) mislead us into questioning any screen use. However, going back to at least the 1980s (e.g., the California Assessment Program studies) research indicates that moderate use of high quality educational media results in better academic performance than no exposure at all, especially for children from under-resourced communities. We need to stop guilt-tripping people who use screen media in thoughtful, intentional, and balanced ways.
- Media literacy helps children develop healthy habits in personalized ways. Because media literacy educators acknowledge that everyone interprets media through the lens of their own personal experiences, they don’t dictate one “right” approach for every situation. Rather, they provide guidance that colleagues and families can use to find their own pathways to healthy and balanced routines that integrate digital media technologies as part of a rich array of daily activities.
- Children are excited by digital media. Reports from classrooms across the country indicate increased engagement and participation by reluctant learners when media technologies are integrated into learning environments. Students who feel marginalized often find their voice when teachers use media literacy education methods.
- Media literacy education offers a way to meet children where they are. It provides a way to question media influence and choices while also respecting the media aspects of family and youth culture in the same way that we would respect children’s ethnic identity or religion.
- Media literacy is included in current professional standards. See, for example, Standard 15.4 on Computer and Information Technology in the PA Pre-K Learning Standards for Early Childhood or the NAEYC/Fred Rogers Center Joint Position Statement: Technology and Interactive Media as Tools in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8 .
- If not in early childhood, then when? We rightfully expect high quality childhood education to lay the foundation for traditional literacy; it is also the logical time to lay the foundation for digital and media literacy. Because behavior patterns aren’t yet firmly entrenched, early childhood is an ideal time to develop good habits. By modeling intentional and balanced use of media technologies, media literacy can help children develop healthy and productive media use habits that will last a lifetime.