It's Crucial for Kids to Learn Media Literacy: Here Are 4 Things You Can Do [Opinion]

From November 2 to November 6, the U.S. will celebrate the very first Media Literacy Week.

The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE), noting the lack of resources available to parents through traditional school curricula, hopes to raise awareness about the importance of media literacy and its essential role in schools today.

Canada and other countries have been touting the benefits of this sort of learning for more than a decade; why is the U.S. so far behind? And if media literacy is so important, why isn't it a required component of American education? What can families do to foster media literacy in their homes and communities? Here are a few problems, a few figures, and a few suggestions for the future.

The Importance of Media Literacy

According to the NAMLE, media literacy is defined as the ability to “access, analyze, evaluate, and communicate information” across print and non-print forms of media. This definition has evolved over decades, and new questions about what students should know about and should be able to do with ever-changing media technologies continue to crop up.

Many Concerned Parties, Little Consensus

Among the many diverse groups struggling to keep pace with the growth of technology and its effects on kids are K–12 teachers, health professionals, religious educators, psychologists, artists, media producers, broadcasters, activists, and politicians.

In 1996 Media Education Lab founder Renee Hobbs called for a big tent to house the field’s broad constituencies. The central pole holding up the big tent, Hobbs argued, is the process of inquiry. Such a process requires the time and space for discussion and debate, which on the whole does not align with the efficiency-centric, standards-based model of schooling in the U.S.

Internet-Savvy Students, Unprepared Schools

While there’s still much work to be done to bring media technology to underserved communities, a huge number of teens use the Internet on a daily basis — 92 percent of 13- to 17-year-olds, according to a Pew survey published in April 2015.

While Internet use has grown sharply over a relatively short period of time, schools have made very little effort to educate their students on ways of analyzing and evaluating information that they find online. In an effort to help kids and their families be better informed, NAMLE created a one-sheet to spur children to be more critical of content on the Web and on television. It addresses three categories: authors and audiences, messages and meanings, and representations and reality. The questions the group poses are pretty basic, but very important — “Who made this?”; “Who paid for this?”; “What does this want me to think?”; “How was this shared with the public?”; “Can I trust this source to tell me the truth?”

Even with this resource, the difficulty of teaching students about media literacy is multifaceted. Educators, school librarians, media specialists, and technologists know firsthand the pitfalls and possibilities that accompany access to massive quantities of digital information. Since media literacy is interdisciplinary by nature, it is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere in formal school curricula. Since its scope is so broad, no individual teacher at any given school seems to feel willing or able to accommodate it within an existing academic subject or to teach it on its own.

An Education in Creation

One way of approaching the daunting topic is by teaching kids how to create their own content. The Center for Media Literacy argues that an individual cannot be a critical consumer without having experience with production. The time constraints of the school day, combined with the constant push for standardized testing, however, complicate this effort.

How can we expect children to use and critique media when they have no idea what goes into their creation? Without understanding the creation process, they lack the background knowledge necessary to effect positive change in their own behavior and analysis. One set of solutions lies in after-school and community-based media literacy programs (some of which are hosted by community colleges), but these are not widely available to all students.

Competing Purposes for Teaching Media Literacy

Learning to write a persuasive essay is a staple of middle and high school education, but should a 21st-century education require us to teach our children how to record a podcast, too? How about developing a script, then shooting and editing a video? Should kids learn to design and build a website? How about learning programming languages to code video games?

The answers to these questions depend entirely upon what we see as the purpose of media literacy — itself contested terrain in the American education system.

Free-market capitalists wave the banner of career readiness as the end goal of developing technological proficiencies associated with media literacy. This vocational approach is increasingly present in schools in which students learn basic office skills and proficiency in course management systems.

But other groups — community activists among them — cite the importance of cultivating citizenship skills. They want kids to be able to enact change within their local communities. From this perspective, media literacy entails much more than information analysis or technological proficiency. It has three equally important components: critical thinking, creative media production, and civic engagement.

The Need for Moral Leadership

As I’ve noted earlier, there is an absence of formal national and state curriculum standards in media literacy. These are crucial, as school-based standards alone are insufficient in preparing young people to be critical thinkers, creative producers, and civically engaged members of their communities.

As formalized schooling becomes increasingly disconnected from the highly mediated lives of young people outside of school, it is increasingly incumbent upon families and communities to take leadership roles in ensuring that children learn the skills and habits necessary to be media literate in their daily lives.

Children require strong scaffolding in schools, at home, and in their communities to become competent, compassionate, and contributing members of society. Most importantly, children who have developed these literacy skills will recognize harmful agendas, and be both intellectually and technologically empowered to speak out on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves.

Next Steps

Here are four things that families can do today to get their kids started on the road to media literacy:

1. Start a discussion about media that enter your home.

You can do this using the guide distributed by the National Association for Media Literacy Education.

2. Set aside time to create media.

The design process will generate rich discussions about audience, purpose, message, representation, and social impact. Plus, you'll sharpen your tech skills. Whether you are creating mods within Minecraft or producing a documentary about your family, your child will probably find making media more fun and constructive than analyzing media artifacts.

3. Instigate social change.

No need to go beyond the walls of your home to instigate social change. Why not collectively create a family media use plan to achieve physical, mental and emotional health at home? Or work with teens to create a social media contract that holds them accountable for acting in responsible and ethical ways? If you think media literacy should be a formal part of the public school curriculum in your state, download a legislative toolkit from Media Literacy Now to enact change.

4. Check out NAMLE’s National Media Literacy Week

It's this week: November 2 to November 6. Programming will include interactive lessons in the classroom, live webinars and Twitter chats, guest blogs, screenings, PSAs, and more. To find out how you can join the #MediaLitWk celebration, contact the National Association for Media Literacy Education at medialiteracyweek@namle.net.

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