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Becoming Media Literate

Don’t just limit screen time—start the conversation about what kids are seeing.

If your child is spending endless hours looking at a screen of some sort, he or she is not alone. A 2015 report by Common Sense Media found that teens ages 13 to 18 spend an average of nine hours a day consuming various forms of media. For tweens ages 8 to 12, it’s an average of six hours a day. This means that they might be watching TV and movies, playing video games, listening to music and checking social media for more hours than they”re sleeping. Should parents be worried? Is it time to cut them off entirely

No, many experts say. Instead, it’s time to get media literate. Michelle Ciulla Lipkin, executive director of the National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE), says that we’re past the point of worrying about how much time kids are spending with media because it’s already happening. She says now is the time to start educating, engaging and empowering kids when it comes to engaging with media. The digital world is one that has created a universal language that requires conscious participation but doesn’t always get it. Teaching media literacy encourages this conscious participation and works to ensure children approach media with thoughtfulness.

What is Media Literacy?

Turning on and using various devices makes one media-able, but does not make one media literate. Media literacy is a burgeoning field of study that hopes to foster the ability to access, evaluate, analyze, create and act within all forms of communication. Lipkin believes it is a necessary expansion of teaching traditional literacy. The focus used to be on reading, writing and comprehension of written texts; it should now include similar instruction for visual and verbal communications found in technology.

“Since kids these days communicate, read and engage almost exclusively via media devices, media literacy meets them where they are and then encourages them to become critical thinkers, effective communicators and active digital citizens,” says Laurie Chin Sayres, director of media literacy education for the Louisville-based LabraGirl Film Project. “Much like a literature class delves into the complex themes, observations and elements of a story, media literacy aims for the same.”

According to Renee Hobbs, a pioneer and preeminent thinker in the field of media literacy who runs the Media Education Lab at the University of Rhode Island, becoming media literate has transformative value. Once you start to think more profoundly about how you view and use media, it reverberates through all sectors of your life. “Media literacy should be a part of every child’s education and an ongoing conversation around every dinner table,” says Hobbs.

When and How to Start

Lipkin, Sayresand Hobbs all agree that the earlier parents start teaching their children to be media literate, the better. Experts offer the following suggestions for parents.

The Consequences of Media Illiteracy

According to Julie Smith, a Colorado-based licensed psychotherapist who works with children and their parents, ignoring the pervasive impact that technology has is to ignore a part of our own story. Without media literacy, ‘the ability for children to understand their biases, beliefs, values—to understand themselves—can cultivate a sense of powerlessness,” Smith says. “This creates undertones of doubt and hesitation in a child’s mind, leaving them to feel like they can’t change their circumstances or experiences.”

On the flip side, Smith says that being media literate supports the critical development task of children to create their own identity. It can strengthen their resiliency and trust in who they are and what they believe in.

“Our children are losing sight of how to tell fact from fiction because information is coming at us so quickly and furiously,” says Lipkin from NAMLE. “News and entertainment are more blended than ever before. Media literacy skills are vital so that we are able to understand what is credible and true. Not being more conscious about media has dangerous implications for individuals and society as a whole.”

Media literacy aims to have you and your child define your interactions with media instead of media defining you. It allows you to apply your own values and go from there.


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