At The LAMP, we’ve got a couple of metaphors we use on a regular basis to make the case that media literacy is a basic need. One of our favorites goes something like, “Not teaching media literacy is like not teaching driver’s ed. Just because you have the keys to the car, that doesn’t mean you should drive it.” So, like many other people, we were not surprised when a study came out recently which reported that giving a computer to youth in low-income households provide little or no educational benefit, and that frequently, the gap between test scores of low-income youth and middle- or upper-class youth actually widens as a result. Authors of the study believe that this is because the computers are not used for educational purposes, but instead become instruments of distraction, usually with little or no parental oversight.
Does this mean that we should stop efforts to get computers and technology to low-income families? Absolutely not. What it does mean is that these efforts are not enough by themselves. Without training in basic media literacy, we’re giving kids toys instead tools. Our digital culture celebrates YouTube stars, online games, live video feeds and Internet bargain shopping far more than it does any online resources available from the local library or access to health care information. Given this, it’s only natural that people with little or no digital literacy don’t know how to use the computer for anything other than entertainment. In addition to funding programs for giving computers to youth and low-income families, funding must also be allocated to programs and efforts teaching people how to use those bright shiny machines.
Digital (and media) literacy opens doors. It’s more than “Internet safety,” it really is cyber wellness, meaning that it is about having a positive relationship with the Internet. Of course you can use computers for fun, and you should, but ideally youth and parents learn that the fun part should be balanced with the educational part. When, as now, computers and the Internet are accepted as entertainment and media literacy is not being taught in schools and communities, there’s one message coming through loud and clear: Digital media have nothing to do with learning.