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Weaving Media Literacy Into Young Children’s Explorations on and off Screens

Lisa Guernsey, New America

Published on December 17, 2020


Media literacy experts have been teaming up with early childhood practitioners to develop a framework for a new way of thinking about raising kids in a digital and media-centric world. Their ideas are encapsulated in the Media Literacy in Early Childhood Report (Herdzina & Lauricella, 2020) that explores how to help young children learn how to understand media content arriving through all sorts of tools and within many different forms—from the pages within books to images on a screen. This article gives background on the origins of early media literacy education and describes multiple examples from personal interviews and activities included in the report.

The summer of 2020 was a tumultuous, emotionally charged time for Americans everywhere—and it was especially difficult for parents and caregivers raising young kids. With COVID-19 forcing the closure of child care centers, schools, museums, and libraries, caregivers had to figure out how to keep their kids learning and occupied while also coping with the anxiety and outrage triggered by racial injustices and protests. TV news, apps and games on smartphones, and social media networks became the conduit for disturbing news, needed distractions, and human connection, all at the same time.

Amid this avalanche of calamity, the Erikson Institute published a new resource, the Media Literacy in Early Childhood Report (Herdzina & Lauricella, 2020). Buried under the news last summer, it should be excavated for a longer look. It provides a framework for a new way of thinking about raising kids today. The report takes an approach that doesn’t fixate on new technology and screens but instead turns one’s attention to media content arriving through all sorts of tools and within many different forms—from the pages within books, to billboards on the road, to graphics on cereal boxes, and, yes, to images on a screen.

“We need to start talking about this at the early ages,” says Alexis R. Lauricella, co-author of the report (with Jenna Herdzina) and executive director of the Technology in Early Childhood (TEC) Center at Erikson Institute. Pandemic-induced virtual learning scenarios have added momentum to the effort. “Now with younger and younger children using digital devices to connect,” Lauricella says, “a lot more people are coming to the understanding that ‘Oh wow, we should be talking about this’” (A. Lauricella, personal communication, September 11, 2020).

The report is a hallmark of a new theory emerging in early childhood circles—that just as children benefit from experiences with books and speech at an early age, they also can benefit from chances to learn about the plethora of tools and strategies people use to communicate and distribute messages to each other. The approach takes cues from the abundance of scientific studies on the importance of adult–child interactions, recognizing that children will likely learn best when they are with caregivers, parents, and educators who engage them in conversation about what they are seeing, viewing, and playing with. These adults will be the key to helping children build skills for sharp thinking about the media when they get older.

But how young to start? It may be easy to visualize an elementary school student learning media literacy by, say, creating an electronic story book or having a class discussion on the meaning of a school’s logo. It is more of a stretch to imagine what this looks like with children who are just learning to talk. The Erikson report does not shy from these questions; it really does mean early childhood. Concepts related to media literacy skill-building start at the very beginning of children’s lives. The report gives pages of specific examples for engaging children as they grow each year, from birth through 8 years old. What becomes clear is that the appropriateness of the activity depends very much on the age and stage of a child’s development. It would not be appropriate to expect a 12-month-old baby to identify the intent of an advertisement, let alone have a clue about what the word “advertisement” means. But at 12 months, babies have begun to learn that communication is a two-way street, and that their actions—their smiles, their cries—elicit a response in others.

And while children at this age may not be using digital devices, these devices are in their line of sight and in their parents’ hands all the time.

“Caregivers are regularly using cameras, mobile phones, and tablets to capture images and videos of their children and often show the child the resulting image on their digital device,” the report points out. “Adults are regularly using media themselves, thereby modeling the use of these tools for children starting at birth” (Herdzina & Lauricella 2020, p. 10). In short, the seeds for learning about and understanding media and communication are planted when children are young enough to be looking at, exploring, listening to, and observing the world around them.

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