Media Literacy Should Start Early – And Last a Lifetime

Matthew Johnson
August 26, 2020

Parents could be forgiven for thinking that our children are born media literate. They are mediatized, certainly, even before they are born: it’s a rare baby shower that doesn’t feature Elsa or Elmo in one form or another. As for digital literacy, kids take to devices like the proverbial ducks to water, quickly becoming expert at finding the videos and games they want.

It’s essential, though, that we not mistake fluency for literacy. The average six-year-old is fully fluent in their native language, but rarely literate; most parents spend countless hours helping their kids learn to read, and we expect them to need a dozen years of schooling to become fully literate. In just the same way, our kids need digital and media literacy instruction in school and need us to guide and support them.

The difference, of course, is that many parents don’t feel they know enough about digital and media literacy themselves to teach their kids. While it can seem like a complex topic, though, at its heart media literacy is about helping kids understand a small number of key concepts. These concepts are easy for us to learn and lay out a developmental path for our kids as they able to understand more complex ideas and as their media habits change.

The first and most fundamental key concept is that media are constructions. Because we experience media in the same way we do reality, we have to consciously remind ourselves that it is not reality -- that it is constructed by people who made choices about what to include, what to leave out, and how those things that are included are presented. The difference between media and reality is why media have social and political implications: any choice made by media makers communicates ideas about who is important, what is worth our attention, which actions are punished and which are rewarded. While these implications are the result of media makers’ choices, though, audiences negotiate meaning as well, bringing their own viewpoints and experiences and, often, taking very different meanings from the same media texts. The meaning and interpretation of a text is influenced by the medium itself because each medium has a unique aesthetic form; media also have commercial implications, since most are made to make money and nearly all cost money to make. These concepts often overlap, of course: for example, the choices that lead to social and political implications – such as casting mostly white male actors as leads in movies – are often made on the basis of commercial considerations.

All of these concepts are as true for digital media as for traditional media, but there is one important difference: digital media are networked, moving us from being consumers at the end of a distribution chain to co-creators in an infinite network. Unlike in traditional media, where distribution was one of the biggest costs, with digital media it’s typically free and almost effortless: as a result, digital media are shareable and persistent, able to spread virally and almost impossible to erase. Similarly, digital media have unexpected audiences because you can never be sure who will see what you share – and you might easily see content that you didn’t mean to. Just as the medium of traditional media influences the message, digital media experiences are shaped by the tools we use, whether it’s features like the endlessly scrolling newsfeeds that make it hard for us to look away from the screen or the algorithms that determine what we see on social networks and video streaming sites. Finally, because networked media is interactive, interactions through digital media can have a real impact – both in negative ways, as the things we say and do online can do real harm to others, and in positive ones, as kids have the ability to be full citizens online and to use digital tools to make a difference in their online and offline communities.

Though each of these key concepts is simple enough to understand (to make it even easier MediaSmarts has developed a series of short videos, Media Literacy 101 and Digital Literacy 101, that introduce and explain each one) the idea of teaching them all to our kids can be daunting. The good news is that there is no shortage of opportunities. When kids are young, taking advantage of the “why” phase can make a trip to the grocery store a media literacy experience: if your child asks why SpongeBob is on a cereal box, you can explain that it’s because the people who designed the box (media are constructions) know that kids will ask their parents to buy it (media have commercial implications). You can then show them a cereal aimed at adults and ask how it’s different (audiences negotiate meaning). Similarly, you can ask your kids if it’s okay before you post a photo of them, explaining as clearly as possible who’s likely to see them (digital media are shareable and persistent) so that by the time they’re active on social media they’re in the habit of getting consent before sharing other people’s photos (interactions through digital media can have a real impact.)

Once we realize just how mediatized and digitized our lives are, it becomes clear that there are connections to media literacy everywhere. As our kids get older, these teachable moments will develop into opportunities to be co-learners with our kids, as we explore together everything from the complications of communicating by text and the long life of childhood photos. By being open about the fact that we are learning alongside them, applying our understanding of media and digital literacy key concepts to new contexts and technologies, we can help them see that media education is not just for kids but for a lifetime.

Written by

Matthew Johnson

Matthew Johnson is the Director of Education for MediaSmarts, Canada’s center for digital and media literacy.