Digital Families Conference Keynote
London, England 18 Oct 2022
Faith Rogow, Ph.D.
(for video of this keynote: https://bit.ly/3zDDTau)
Good morning. Many thanks to Parent Zone and the Digital Families conference team for making it possible for me to be here. I’m delighted to be with you and to have an opportunity to explore the ways we think about children and media and education, and how that relates to regulation. Recently I’ve been working in media literacy education for our youngest children, and it’s led me to insights that challenge some old assumptions. So I’m going to invite you this morning to re-think how we’re framing this whole issue.
First, let me do a quick check to see where the early childhood people are in the audience. Raise your hand if you know what this is: [does hand motion for Grandma Shark] It’s ok to admit it if you know.
For the few of you on the planet who aren’t familiar, this is the dance move that represents Grandma Shark in the Baby Shark video, which has more than 11 billion (that’s billion with a “b”) views on YouTube. [I’m not going to play it – I see the dread in some of your eyes – I won’t plant that earworm]
What does this particular motion communicate about Grandma Shark?
How does it compare to the movement representing Grandpa Shark?
How is it different from Mommy Shark?
What do these differences symbolize? [that old sharks have no teeth; that female sharks are smaller than males – this is reinforced for all the generations]
One of the many things that is interesting about the Baby Shark video phenomenon is that if you know about sharks, you know that
• they never lose all their teeth;
• female sharks are generally larger than males;
• sharks don’t hang out in families – they’re pretty much solo, almost from the moment of birth so baby sharks never “know” their grandparents or father and barely know their mother;
• and unlike the animated Baby Sharks they aren’t neon green, bright orange, or hot pink.
So… misinformation starts early.
Baby Shark certainly isn’t the most consequential of examples, and it was not created as intentional disinformation. But children routinely take in ideas from all sorts of media, including media like Baby Shark, so thinking about the video provides a good opportunity to explore how we might think about our response to misinformation.
We could start a campaign to demand that YouTube pulls Baby Shark because it includes misinformation, but that would be silly. In part that’s because it doesn’t do any good to tell a child not to like what they like. It’s nonsensical to tell someone not to feel what they’re already feeling. And the job of an educator can’t be to condemn media that children treasure. So we don’t waste our energy trying to convince children that Baby Shark is bad or that YouTube is a wasteland.
Also, when all our attention is devoted to preventing children from encountering problems, we lose opportunities to teach them skills. So, rather than condemning the video or asking for it to be banned, we use a media literacy inquiry approach to add new information and perspectives that can help children think in more complex ways about the media they enjoy:
We start conversations – asking children instead of assuming we know what they think. So, with a child who has already viewed the video a few dozen times, we might
• Invite them to tell us what they learned about sharks and then guide them in an online search to see if they could confirm which of those things was accurate, perhaps by going to YouTube together and searching for informational shark videos. Along the way we engage in conversation about the differences between media made just for fun and media made to share facts, and we narrate the criteria we use to choose which video we decide to click on so the child begins to learn how to find reliable sources for themselves.
• We could start with information about sharks – perhaps based on a child’s recent experience, like a visit to the ocean or a library book choice sparked by video channel ads for “Shark Week.” Then invite them to use what they now know to evaluate for themselves if they think Baby Shark is a good teaching tool. If they decide there are some errors, they could make up their own hand motions and record a version that’s more accurate.
This model of inquiry can be applied to any age. And it never requires us to tell children that Baby Shark is bad and they shouldn’t watch. Of course, it’s not quite as simple as it sounds, but before I explain more, let me provide a bit of context.
We are living through an amazing time. For only the second time in human history, the concept of literacy is shifting.
The first shift was sparked by Gutenberg. Before the introduction of the technologies that made mass printing possible, reading and writing was a skill set reserved for specialists – “scribe,” for example, was an esteemed profession. The printing press shifted our expectations for who should be literate. Over a couple of centuries, we went from an elite few literate people to the expectation we live with today: universal literacy – every person should be literate.
The ubiquity of digital media technologies is creating a second shift. This time the shift is in what it actually means to be literate – even if we limit the term “literacy” to the ways we communicate with symbol systems and not as a way to describe everything we need to learn (e.g. financial literacy, ecoliteracy, etc.). In the real world, literacy now requires much more than decoding text and writing sentences with printed words.
In the digital world, if all you can do is read and write printed text, you’re missing a lot. Consider that nearly all common information sources now merge images, and often audio, with printed text – even in sources we may think of as traditional print sources, like newspapers. On social media, posts that include images attract more attention. In the political world, discourse occurs via memes, not just in formal debate. Our online personal accounts commonly offer “dashboards” with charts and graphs rather than written summaries of our information.
So one part of literacy for the digital world is that analyzing images must be as routine as learning to decode and analyzing print. When we read aloud to children, they aren’t just learning about the world from the words – they are learning from the images. How many city kids develop a fear of the forest because in so many fairy tales, the images of the forest are scary. And then we wonder why they aren’t excited to go hang out in the forest! In film and video, children don’t just learn from the story: How many children who aren’t from Africa think they know what Africa is like because they’ve watched Lion King or Madagascar or Tarzan? What are the consequences of letting them carry those limited visions because we don’t discuss the images, only the stories?
Even more important, the technology means we have almost unfathomable access to information and audiences, literally in the palms of our hands. In an online world, to make sense of what we decode and create without becoming completely overwhelmed or numb, people need logic and reasoning, as well as discernment and evaluation skills (especially being able to decide what to pay attention to and what to ignore), and also an understanding of how platform design, commercial structures, and repetition influence messages and interpretation.
This changing literacy is what I want to explore with you this morning.
Imagine for a moment that our collective response to the Gutenberg shift had been different.
What if, as communities began to find ways to share printed text and all the stories, information, and ideas they held, people had chosen to devote most of their resources to keeping children safe because some of the ideas in the books and pamphlets were dangerous. They never taught most children to read or write or think about ideas. They didn’t even pay much attention to who controlled which ideas were included or excluded from the library. Instead, they taught children strategies to keep themselves safe while in the library.
Sound a bit far fetched? I don’t want to stretch the metaphor too far, but that’s essentially what we do when we feel compelled to prepare the next generation for life in the digital world but offer, almost exclusively, strategies focused on how to use the technologies in ways that keep children safe.
And until very recently, that has been a dominant approach to preparing the next generation for life in a digital world – especially for young children. Many have approached what is best understood as an education challenge instead as a public health initiative aimed at shielding children from harm.
But, in real life, children aren’t knights. They need more than armor and shields. And they only need fighting skills if our primary goal is to train children to approach media as their enemy.
Let me be very clear: I am not arguing that we should abandon our concerns about facets of digital technologies that run counter to our well-being. I wouldn’t be a media literacy educator if I didn’t believe that there are real harms and valid concerns about media effects.
Nor will I ever suggest that media literacy is a replacement for regulation, especially when regulation is aimed at transparency and design rather than censorship. An educated public does not ever absolve media makers, owners, or platforms of their responsibility to act in the public good.
What I am suggesting is that to address our concerns about media, we need to re-think the challenge.
Media makers have always known that framing matters. Some of you may be familiar with this example from one of Google’s ‘Be Internet Awesome’ media literacy lessons. Changing the frame changes our understanding of what we’re looking at.
Was your guess correct?
Similarly, in education or policy, the way we frame the task shapes our responses. Public health framing treats media as if it is singular rather than plural and diverse, and that it is a disease. The resulting goal is to prevent children from getting sick. This particular frame limits our ability to prepare children to thrive in the real world. Let me briefly suggest four of those limits:
1. A public health frame inherently draws our attention to the dangers of media. If media are identified as the problem, the logical response is to keep children away, or at least minimize contact – so we end up with recommendations about screen time limits, even as study after study finds that what children are doing with screens is a vastly more important variable than how much time they spend.
In education, this has practical consequences. If policies are put in place to reduce screen time, that makes it difficult to help students practice the skills they need to use screens ethically, effectively, creatively, and critically. To put it another way, we can’t simultaneously keep children away from screens and help them become media literate, any more than we can keep them away from books and expect them to become great readers.
Of course, media and digital technologies are woven into the fabric of modern life – so many aspects of our daily routines now take place in the digital commons. And compared to the analog world, digital media are extraordinarily accessible. Even if you keep children away from screens, you can’t keep them away from the culture in which they are growing up.
Perhaps some of you are familiar with the Sesame Street song “Who are the People in Your Neighborhood?.” The people that children met in the song were people they were likely to see in real life in their neighborhood. The digital world makes children part of a whole new neighborhood with new people to learn about – people you want them to meet and people you’d prefer they not hang out with. If we’re preparing children for life, we can limit where in the neighborhood they are allowed to go, but our goal can’t be to keep them from ever being out and about.
2. A second public health strategy has been to teach warning lessons. These help children learn to deal with or avoid obvious dangers, but they rarely help children learn to grapple with the ideas they encounter. In other words, they don’t offer thinking skills.
And if all we do is warn and scold, we aren’t much fun and kids aren’t likely to listen. They’ll spend more energy testing our rules than learning the skills that might actually help them stay safe online.
Safety lessons are sometimes compared to teaching children to cross the street. In this scenario, the skills we teach (like pausing to look both ways) enable children to venture out, and we also ensure they are going into a reasonably regulated environment (e.g., we make sure there are stop signs, traffic lights, and crosswalks and vehicle drivers must be licensed).
The difference between how we prepare them to venture safely out their door and how we prepare them to be safe online is that we generally approach learning to cross the street by conveying the idea that we want them to be able to be outside and navigate their neighborhood and come back alive. For many adults, this is different than their attitude towards the online world: they don’t really want their children there, but grudgingly, if they must, then here are some rules.
Children sense our emotions and motives as much, if not more than they are listening to our words. They are much more likely to absorb lessons that come from a place of imagination and discovery, than lessons stemming from our anxiety.
3. A third result of a public health frame is what we choose to research and how we do it. In a public health frame, the majority of research funding goes to studies examining media effects, even though most of the time we know the answer is going to be a version of: “it depends.” It depends on who the user is and what they are actually doing or viewing.
We would do better to shift a large portion of those funds to education research – figuring out what actually helps children develop lifelong media and digital literacy skills.
And if we can’t quite get there, let’s at least require effects researchers to use media literacy as a variable. What we do now is akin to researching the effects of books without ever bothering to ask if our research subjects can read. Asking whether research subjects have been taught to use media literacy skills would help advance the field because it would require developing definitions and assessments to determine whether a child possessed media literacy skills, knowledge, or dispositions.
4. Lastly, safety strategies are focused on the “now.” In contrast, education demands that we consider what children need today and also what they’ll need to be prepared to lead successful adult lives. Many of the safety strategies that are important now are likely to be outdated by the time children reach adulthood.
But until evolution changes humans into something else, concepts like reason, curiosity, and deep attachment to narrative storytelling will not become irrelevant. Maybe it’s worth focusing our attention there. Media literacy education provides a way to do that.
One of the reasons that we’ve been so distracted by the public health approach is that mainstream media primes the general public with sensationalized reporting on media effects research. Very few people beyond the research or policy community read the actual studies. What families know – or think they know – comes from people describing the research: bloggers, journalists, pundits, even entertainers, often amplified by retweets and social media posts. Because profit structures reward clicks, sensationalism often obscures accuracy. You earn more with a headline screaming that “screens are turning babies into zombies” than “the research is nuanced.” So let’s help people learn to routinely ask media literacy questions about the reporting of effects of digital media, because, in fact, most of the actual research does, indeed, tend to be quite nuanced.
So rather than framing the challenge as one of danger/safety, what if we frame the challenge as illiteracy?
This re-frame doesn’t mean we abandon media management strategies. Media management refers to the rules set, mostly by adults, to govern access and content – when and for how long and what children are permitted to do with media devices. Media management is unequivocally important. But if we don’t distinguish between media management and media literacy, we end up with families who set media rules thinking that they are raising media literate kids even though the adults – not their children – are doing all the work and children never develop the skill sets they need to begin to manage media for themselves.
So let’s be clear that the goal is more than media management.
If we were programming a media literacy GPS, this purpose statement would be our destination and user studies would tell us our current location. The task then becomes figuring out how to get from here to there.
If the goals are habits of inquiry and skills of expression, then it’s easy to see why safety isn’t enough. It’s because safety doesn’t give kids the skills they need to navigate the digital commons and process what they find there or participate ethically or effectively in the communities offered by digital media technologies.
This is easier to understand if we think of media literacy as a comprehensive skill set. The gears represent each skill area – note that Inquire and Reflect are larger and at the center – they are included in everything we do. I depict them as gears because they’re all interconnected – each loses power if they aren’t linked to the others – they do very little in isolation.
Most safety approaches are quite good at addressing the Access competency – how to keep your information private, deal with cyberbullying, avoid scams, and the like – so it’s a part of media literacy, but doesn’t do very much unless it’s combined with the other nine competencies.
The same thing is true of just learning how to use the technology. We don’t just want children to be better or safer media users; we want them to be better thinkers.
That’s why Inquire and Reflect are central media literacy competencies.
So how do we do that?
There are hundreds of possible strategies – media analysis is a common starting place. Contrary to some practice, this is not lecturing children to explain to them what the media messages are.
“Media literacy analysis isn’t about showing children what they missed by pointing out what we notice. It’s about asking them what they notice and helping them build the skills they need to see more.”
We teach people to ask questions about the media they use and create. Not a set list of questions (that’s an old-school media literacy education approach). Instead we teach question categories.
The categories include traditional media education areas like authorship, purpose, and interpretation; we also add economics, effects, responses, context (including looking for patterns), and content (which is the way we connect to curriculum so we can integrate this into schools without having to teach a separate course – “what are the messages about…”).
• We start with “I wonder…” because we pose questions as conversation starters, not as a quiz with single correct answers.
• We use categories because it let’s us adapt wording to something appropriate for the situation:
A common question like “What’s the purpose?” (already a problem because it implies a singular answer when there may be many purposes – and part of what we want to do is encourage complex thinking), might be made concrete for younger children: “What does this want me to do?”
And notice I phrase it in the first person because the goal is that children learn to ask questions for themselves, not for us always to be the questioner.
A target audience or effects question about a social media post might be in form like: “Would your sister think this is funny?” or “What do you suppose your coach’s reaction would be if they saw this post?”
• And we ask questions in strings, adding follow-up prompts like “How do you know” or “What makes you say that?” (in a curious, not a confrontational tone of voice)
As much as possible, we integrate these questions into existing routines. For example, when reading aloud, we ask a predictive question and then probe children’s answers for evidence: “What did you notice in the picture that made you think that’s what is going to happen next?…Let’s see if you’re correct!”
In media literacy education, most of what we do is asking, not telling. And there are some specific ways we do this:
• We start with the very youngest children because that’s where habits start, including habits of inquiry: asking relevant questions, knowing how to find reliable answers, and using logic, reasoning, and evidence to draw conclusions.
• In the early years, habits are far more important than “right answers;” we model asking questions about media because we want children to learn that this is just what people do – that it would be weird to encounter or create media and not ask questions.
We talk about media, not as contestants in a zero sum game with the winner being the one who comes up with some mythical “correct” interpretation. This is glaringly obvious when dealing with young children. Because of the age difference, a three-year-old will almost never see things exactly the way that we do. Yet, we don’t think our primary job is to engage them in a zero sum competition where we tell them they’re wrong and we’re right so we win.
Instead we try to understand the meaning they are making. And we do that by doing what media literacy models throughout the lifespan; we ask questions. Because questions are the way we learn about and from one another. We know that humans always interpret through the filter of who they are, what they know, and what their experiences have been. So we expect and welcome variations in interpretation. Media literacy can provide us the foundations for dialogue across incredible differences as long as we use reasonable evidence as a common ground. If we teach children to attach answers to evidence from day one, until it’s routine, we can easily enter that place of dialogue and common ground.
One word of caution here. Traditional pedagogies, in which adults are the experts with all the answers and children are only rarely required to do any intellectual seeking of their own are more likely to instill obedience than critical thinking. In such systems children learn to trust authorities instead of developing, and ultimately trusting their own skills and judgments. It’s a trap that can appear to be successful as long as everyone follows authorities that merit our approval…
When we see adults who seemingly blindly follow sources that they’ve decided are trustworthy rather than continue to ask questions (because even trustworthy sources are wrong sometimes), we are looking at the results of what our current approach to media has taught them to do. Just find trusted sources and distinguish them from those who mislead and we’re done. This, in fact, is the exact model that news ratings charts or browser extensions provide. We shouldn’t be using them as part of media literacy education.
The last thing we want to do is to accustom children to rely on others to interpret media for them. If all we offer is a version of ‘believe my narrative, not theirs,’ we leave people – young and grown –to malign actors. Nor do we want to do the opposite, teaching children to disbelieve everything and trust no one. That yields cynical, non-thinking adults instead of people who are skeptical and engaged. We don’t teach people to doubt, we teach them to investigate.
Ultimately, we want inquiry to become automatic – like reading. Once you learn how to read, you can’t ever look at printed text and not see words. Your brain won’t let you. When we use the word “habits,” it’s the opposite of mindless. We want thinking to become the “mindless” habit. We want active thinking to be everyone’s default setting.
Then, we can help children learn to notice the media in their environment and invite them to think about what those media are saying to them and why. We can help them learn to ask better questions. It’s what digital parenting specialist, Devorah Heitner, might call “mentoring, not monitoring.”
Theologian Mary Daly used to write the word disease as dis-ease, noting that sometimes being sick was evidence of a state of discomfort with social realities as much as it indicated any specific biological problem.
And, perhaps in this view, those who take a public health approach to digital tech are not altogether wrong. Living through major societal change is unsettling.
We’re less than twenty years into an era of widespread availability of digital media devices, so we shouldn’t be hard on ourselves if we haven’t figured it all out yet. After all, we’ve been reading print for several hundred years and we still argue about the best ways to teach reading and to ensure that everyone learns how.
We are in uncharted territory, and scary as that can be, it also suggests that there are exciting new things to discover. We can approach digital media technologies with fear or with imagination. I vote for the latter.
So I invite you to imagine what it would look like to base policies and practice on creating a culture in which inquiry is celebrated, universal, and routine.
And we create a culture in part with separate lessons and activities, but mostly with the things we do every day. Our habits of inquiry. In homes and in schools and in our online neighborhoods.
In British schools, this effort has commonly been labelled “media education” or “media studies.” I’ve purposefully used the phrase “media literacy” because I want to underscore that our efforts need to be infused into every part of the curriculum, the way that print is. There isn’t a subject area that isn’t significantly influenced by media, so the task at hand can’t be relegated to occasionally analyzing a film or devoting a week to cybersafety.
What I’m suggesting is that our goal is to help children become literate in the digital, media-rich world they actually live in. We should feel compelled to embrace media literacy education because our collective job is to prepare children for their digital future, not our analog past (even if our education systems were designed for that past and still reflect its priorities).
They say you can stop an earworm by replacing it with a mantra or phrase repeated several times. So for any of you that still have a slightly annoying preschool song featuring sharks in your head, let me end with the way blogger Mitra Martin summarized my thinking about children and media: “End the guilt. Start the education.” End the guilt. Start the education.
May be reprinted for educational, non-profit use with the credit: From the edublog “TUNE IN Next Time” by Faith Rogow, Ph.D., InsightersEducation.com 2022