Media literacy: not just for big kids

Parents and early childhood educators can help young children learn to analyze and evaluate media messages.

Media literacy educators around the country celebrated the first annual Media Literacy Week in the United States this November. The mission of that initiative was to highlight the power of media literacy education and its essential role within the education of young people. But media literacy education isn’t just for school-aged kids! Many media scholars stress that parents and early childhood educators can help younger children learn to analyze and evaluate media messages. 

Putting the focus on helping younger children develop a critical media lens is not surprising considering the increasing numbers of children with access to mobile media devices. A 2013 report from Common Sense Media revealed that nearly 75 percent of children aged eight and under have access to a smartphone or tablet, and 38 percent of children under age two have used a mobile device for media. A 2015 study in the Pediatrics journal indicated that most three and four-year-olds involved in the study could use these devices independently, and one-third of them engaged in multitasking. 

Regardless of whether children are using mobile media devices or “traditional” media (such as television, DVDs, computers, radio and books), adults can help them take a critical look at the content of the messages they’re taking in. This includes the content that children and their families intentionally seek out, such as TV programs, books, video games, educational software, mobile apps and music. It also includes the many kinds of media messages they encounter but aren’t seeking out intentionally, such as advertising, images on clothing, food packaging, billboards and magazines displayed at “child level” in a store’s check-out aisle. 

Interactions with any kind of media can provide opportunities to help children develop important habits of inquiry about media. Here are some strategies for helping young children develop media literacy skills:

  • The foundation of media literacy is understanding that all media are socially constructed. This means understanding that people make media and, in doing so, they make choices about what content to include and how to convey it to others. Help young children explore this concept by asking them some key questions. For example, while reading a children’s book, ask questions like the following: “Who made up this story?” “Who are they talking to?” “What does the storyteller want me to remember?” “Who made the pictures?” “How does the artist want me to feel when I look at the pictures?” In this example, the questions can help a child recognize that people (an author and illustrator) created the story and made choices about what they want readers to think, feel and remember. Build your own habit of using these kinds of questions with any kind of media that children encounter – whether it’s a poster on the wall of their bedroom, a children’s game installed on a tablet, a video you show with your preschool group, or a children’s cartoon program on TV (and the commercials shown during breaks).
  • Commit to being an active viewer of media with children while finding the balance between posing nonjudgmental questions like those listed above and sharing your own reactions to what you’re noticing. Use simple statements that convey your values and thoughts about what’s happening, such as “I love that he was kind to the new boy in his neighborhood” or “I don’t agree with the choice she just made.” Follow up with questions to get children’s thoughts, such as “How do you think the new boy felt?” or “Why do you think she decided to do that?”
  • One of the most powerful ways for children to understand that mass media are created by people is to give them opportunities to create their own. Give them tools to create a book, poster, video, advertisement or music – all of which require thoughtful planning and decision-making. When they’ve created something, ask them the same kinds of questions described above. If they made a book, for example, you could ask them to tell you about what they put on the cover and why, why they would want someone to read their book, and what they want a reader to feel. 

All these strategies involve responsive interactions between caring adults and young children – interactions that are essential to their healthy development and that promote positive learning, creativity, exploration and connection. By developing the ability to think critically about media and media messages, young children are building a foundation for lifelong media literacy skills. This is especially important as young people expand their media use during adolescence and encounter a wider range of media messages related to things like healthy and unhealthy relationships, sexuality, body image, and human differences (including race, ethnicity, gender, class, sexual orientation and disabilities). Parents, educators and other caring adults can continue to help guide young people as they deepen their ability to make positive media choices and challenge stereotypes and other unhealthy media messages. 

Michigan State University Extension provides a variety of programs and resources related to the positive health and development of children and adolescents. Among these is an initiative called Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments, which includes a curriculum that has a focus on helping early adolescents become critical consumers of media. 

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