The Interview SeriesJun 08, 2020

Digital Literacy for Kids: Advice from the Expert at MediaSmarts

After working in theatre, television and education, Matthew Johnson merged his unique expertise into one role and joined the team at MediaSmarts as a media educational specialist. Drawing on his knowledge of the media industry and his experience teaching in the classroom, Matthew eventually became the Director of Education for the organization. Today, he oversees the creation of all MediaSmarts’ resources and programming. He has a deep understanding of digital literacy, what it means and how to teach it to our kids.

We sat down with Matthew to learn a bit more about how parents can raise digitally literate kids.

What are digital literacy and media literacy?

Digital literacy is an outgrowth of media literacy. It recognizes that all of the analysis that we apply to traditional media applies to digital media. In Canada, and to a certain extent around the world, media literacy practiced in schools is based on a series of key concepts.

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The first concept is that media is made for a purpose and the people who made it made choices. Sometimes those choices are conscious decisions and sometimes they reflect unconscious assumptions or questions that weren’t asked. A lot of the issues that we have around stereotyping and representation, for instance, come from questions people didn’t ask because they just assumed that a certain type of person needs to be the protagonist.

Another key concept is the idea that media has commercial implications. It costs money to make and, in most cases, was created to make money. That’s even more relevant now because, in a lot of cases, kids don’t understand how the platforms they use make money. It’s very difficult to be a canny consumer if you have no idea what deal you’re agreeing to.

What are some other ways that digital literacy is different from media literacy?

The big difference is that in the traditional media model, the transmission was one way. It cost a lot to create and distribute media, so only a small number of people could do it. Then it was transmitted to consumers with very little interaction. If you really were unhappy about something you could write an angry letter, but basically your ability to interact was limited. Similarly, you didn’t have very many side-to-side connections. You might talk about a TV show with your coworkers, but fundamentally it was an isolated experience.

To reflect the fact that digital media is fundamentally different, we’ve developed five additional key concepts. The first is that digital media is networked. So now instead of being at the end of a chain, we’re in the middle of a network.

So every connection is two-way even if we’re not aware of it. And because of advances in digital technology, producing and distributing content, which used to be the most expensive product, is now very affordable and is widely democratized. We now have a lot of ethical considerations that we didn’t have before, because we’re now broadcasters and redistributors of that media.

Similarly, we have issues around privacy, around bullying. We have opportunities for citizenship and civic action that didn’t really exist with traditional media because we just didn’t have those available to us. So, that really is the fundamental difference: interactivity and the network rather than the chain of distribution.

What are some of the biggest concerns and misconceptions that you hear from parents today?

We did a study in 2018 with parents; at that point, misinformation online had become the top concern. That’s something that we could not have predicted even a couple of years earlier and it was a surprise even in 2018.

And, exposure to inappropriate content was very high up there. Bullying was very high up there. Privacy issues were somewhat high. Stranger contact and related issues were not too high up. They were present, and I think they’re always going to be present, but it was encouraging to see that stranger contact was not too high up because that traditionally has been the biggest gap in parents’ concerns. Proportionately speaking, parents have been more concerned with stranger contact than, for instance, the risk from peers or how kids can develop healthy relationships.

And interestingly, screen time didn’t rank that high as one of their concerns, but it did rank at the top of the list of things that were sources of conflict between parents and kids when it came to digital technology. So it wasn’t so much that they were worried about it necessarily, but they were frequently fighting about it.

Parents often wonder when to give their kids their first device. What are your thoughts?

The most important thing is that you start and maintain a conversation with your kids about what they’re doing with technology. That’s part of a broader approach of co-viewing that we recommend that starts as soon as they’re using media of any kind. Talk to them about what they’re watching, what they’re doing, and actually co-view—sit next to them sometimes as they’re watching a cartoon. We use the term “co-viewing,” but it really means any engagement with your kid’s media lives.

So, when it comes to a device, you want to extend that conversation into talking about the device. You want to start by setting out your expectations for them. We know from our research that having rules about what kids do online does make a difference.

The first rule always has to be to come and talk to you if they get in any kind of trouble. That trouble could be technical, like the device turned off and they don’t know how to turn it on again—or it could be seeing something unexpected. Or, maybe they did something they regret. But the important thing is that they know that the first thing they should do is always to come to you and that you’re not going to freak out.

One of the things we’ve said for a long time is that it’s important that the access to the device or access to the platform not be used as a punishment. In many cases, even in situations where kids are being bullied online, they’d rather endure it than risk losing access to the device.

Given the developments with COVID-19, do you think any of the screen time advice will change?

We were involved in developing the Canadian Paediatric Society’s recommendations on screen time. I was on the Digital Health Task Force, and we’ve been pushing to move away from counting hours for a while.

Now, it depends on the age of children, so it makes the most sense to be really strict with the youngest kids. For kids under two, there’s so much vital development happening. They need the kind of simulation they don’t get from media. They need to explore the physical world and that’s why physical books at that age are better than E-books. They need to interact with other human beings. They need to explore the world around them and so on. Once you get above age two, it makes sense to keep an eye on their overall time, but it’s much more about developing healthy habits.

As kids get older, as they get moving into the upper single digits and into their teens, and particularly when they start using devices for school work it becomes less about counting time than about steering them towards more positive uses. What you want as they’re getting older is to encourage them to be doing things that are genuinely educational, creative or that have a physical element to them.

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