Young children aren’t critical thinkers yet. They take a lot of things at face value — meaning they will often believe or copy what you tell them, especially if you are a trusted source, such as a parent, teacher or a favorite cartoon character.
As I’ve talked with parents about new technologies over the years, regardless of what the new device or app might be, parents frequently say: I want my child to grow up to tech-savvy, while avoiding the risks that too much media or inappropriate content might bring. Tech-savviness is more than just unlocking a device or downloading an app — it means thinking critically about technology. For example, tech-savvy children may ask:
- Who made this? Why did they design it or write the story this way?
- How can I express myself through technology without hurting others’ feelings?
- Is this information trustworthy?
- What is this advertisement trying to sell me?
Asking these types of questions shows digital literacy skills, and they are especially important now, because kids’ daily lives have more media in them than ever. Much of the design of media is advertising-driven, and children are particularly targeted as media consumers precisely because they lack the thinking skills to resist amazing-looking ads. Although children under five years of age may not be able to clearly think about these concepts yet — it’s easier once they get to seven or eight years or older — here are things parents can do to build digital literacy skills starting from early ages:
- Watch media together often. When you see something in a video, advertisement or app you like or don’t like, say it out loud, and explain your thoughts. This allows you to teach your child the tricks of some commercials (or appreciate their humor!), or be aware when media is stereotyping characters by gender or race. Also, it indirectly teaches children that it’s normal to question what you see on media.
- Ask your kids about the media they watch. When your kids watch media alone, ask what they watched, what they thought about it, and why they did or didn’t like it. You may not get that rich of an answer, but at least you’re modeling that everyone should think about their reactions to technology.
- Be mindful of “phubbing.” When you or your kids notice the act of tuning into a screen (whether it’s a phone, a tablet, a TV or a computer screen) at the expense of interactions with another person, have a name for it (some researchers call it “phubbing,” combining “phone” and “snubbing” together). In my house, we tease each other about being “robots,” like when my son won’t process my question because he’s watching TV, or when I’m staring at my phone and not answering him! This helps us recognize that the balance between turning our attention to technology versus each other’s faces is worth being aware of. Studies have shown that this negatively impacts couples, children, and often is a way that we escape from social stresses.
- Create media together. Try shooting videos or taking pictures, one family member at a time. Talk about why you took the pictures you took. This allows kids to understand that everyone creates media from a different perspective, and has a reason behind the stories they want to tell.
- Discuss social media usage. If you keep a social media page, talk to your kids about it. Why do you post the photos you post, and see if they are okay with it (and discuss why or why not!). Be open to deleting posts if your kids don’t like the pictures they contain.
- There’s a time and place for using media. Just the act of having unplugged spaces or set times teaches kids that there is a time and a place for technology, but it shouldn’t consume you.