Children are now using media at very young ages. Touchscreen phones or tablets make swiping, tapping, and clicking easy enough for even a 1-year-old to manipulate. Voice-activated speakers allow children to request their favorite songs with simple language commands, and an endless amount of content seems to be at their tiny little fingertips. Add streaming networks, YouTube, video chatting and child-directed apps to the mix, and it becomes clear that our young children are active and regular media users.
Even those families who restrict or limit exposure to media tend to regularly be pushing a smartphone in their child’s face to take all of those cute photos. It is nearly impossible for children to be completely removed from the media that surrounds us all. So why are we not supporting them to develop strong media literacy skills as early as possible?
We define media literacy in early childhood as the emerging ability to access, engage, explore, comprehend, critically inquire, evaluate and create with developmentally appropriate media.
Here's an analogy: When children are young, we talk to them about healthy eating. When they complain about eating vegetables, we explain their value in helping them grow healthy and strong. When they request ice cream for breakfast, we share that ice cream is a “sometimes food.” We talk about healthy eating as early as possible because we know this impacts their later eating habits. The same mindset is helpful when approaching media literacy: supporting strong media literacy skills early on will impact their media engagement habits.
While there are many concepts included in media literacy education, there are also simple ways to begin incorporating media literacy into your everyday media encounters. Here are some examples:
[Related: I feel no guilt about my kids' screen time]
TV shows. When watching a show with your child, ask questions to see if they are understanding the storyline and message. Explain the ways media creators use cuts, zooms, flashbacks and music to tell a story.
YouTube. Talk to your child about what happens when the video they selected is over. How is YouTube different from shows on our TV? Why does it suggest another video for you to watch? How did it decide what video to show you next? Explore (in kid-friendly terms) how the creators of YouTube want you to stay on the website. You can even bring up advertising here!
Tablets and smartphones. Consider how your child uses these types of devices. Provide tools and opportunities for them to explore and create with these devices. Use the features that empower them to tell their own stories, like voice recording or photo editing apps.
These actions and discussions may seem simple, but they are critical in early childhood.
Also written by Jenna Herdzina, MS, Program Manager of the TEC Center.
Erikson Institute’s Technology in Early Childhood (TEC) Center is a trusted source for digital-age educators and parents seeking information about the intersection of child development, early learning and children’s media for children up to age 8. For more activities and ideas for supporting media literacy skills, check out our Media Literacy Implementation Plan. To find out more about how to support media literacy in early childhood, explore our full Media Literacy in Early Childhood Report, which includes a framework, child development information and Tips for Caregivers.