Children are being exposed to media at very young ages so it seems especially important to engage them in some sort of early childhood media literacy. However, there isn’t much out there about it. Many articles I’ve found point out that preschoolers have difficulty discerning what is real or pretend in the first place, so it’s tough for them to grasp the fantasies of advertisements or even that Elmo isn’t a real monster. But that doesn’t make early media literacy impossible. In fact, with many of the youngest generation growing up with access to touch screen phones, iPads, and computers, the affects of media on children are far-reaching. Often parents are eager to offer their children media time in exchange for a moment of rest. Yet, with plenty of studies showing negative affects of excessive screen time on child development, it’s clear screen time should be limited. It’s a difficult balance to find and a struggle for many parents whose toddlers nag them for additional screen time when it’s time to turn it off. This makes early media literacy all the more important, encouraging parents to use media as a resource, not an outlet. Here are five steps you can use at home with your family that can not only inspire children to be critically engaged at a young age, but will help you better understand your child’s viewpoint.
1. Know the media your child is interacting with. Commit to being a partner during any show or phone application you offer your child. Turning on the show and leaving isn’t enough. Understand its content.
2. Encourage them to look for the central point. The Center for Media Literacy explains that “at the most basic level, preschoolers are likely to identify a character they can see or one who is the center of the action.” Basically, help your child find the storyteller. I’ll add that whenever you get a new book, a new DVD or game, or begin a new show, take a look at the cover picture with your preschooler. Talk about its content by offering, “I think this story/movie/show/game is about a little puppet named Sid who loves science. Let’s watch it and find out.” Or, “I think this book is about a little girl and her bunny.” Soon enough, they’ll be theorizing the content of their respective media before they start engaging with it. This encourages them to be mindful of the media they’re consuming even before they begin.
3. Give them context. Take the classic good guy/bad guy setup for instance. In my experience, boys as young as 3 years old are offered these scenarios and scripts. Even kids who’ve never seen a violent TV show enact these play scripts in preschool and bring them home to offer to their siblings and playmates. Historically, the good guy/bad guy dichotomy is both racialized and essentialized, as the “bad guy” is said to be born bad. That makes it all the more important to talk about if the bad guy is really bad and if the good guy is actually good, especially since they’re often engaged in the same amount of violence. An article in The Journal for Media Literacy suggests “modifying the image of the villains by pointing out to children that even ‘bad guys’ have family and friends that care for them and would be sad if they were hurt.” The larger social metaphor can be clear to an adult, but we know preschoolers can’t grasp it. Offering this context helps children to eventually learn that characters often have a story we can’t always see.
4. Address and challenge stereotypes. It’s always helpful to expose children to diverse media that contradicts stereotypes they absorb in other media, or in society at large. Find a show or book that challenges notions like only girls play with dolls or that girls don’t like trucks. Children are constantly given these stereotypes and unless you offer them an alternative, they’ll begin to see them as universal rules.
5. Set boundaries. Limiting screen time is not only important for your child, but it is for you, too. The more you give in to their nagging for more screen time, the more screen time they’ll get, the more they’ll nag…it’s a downward spiral. If you’re consistent, they’ll get used to the boundaries and it’ll cut down on both the inevitable preschooler whining and the excessive screen consumption.
Emily is a contributing writer for The LAMPpost. You can find more of her writing on her blog, “Kids and Gender.”