The Interview SeriesMay 18, 2020

Teaching Kids to Think Critically: Advice from a Media Literacy Expert

As Executive Director of the National Association for Media Literacy, Michelle Ciulla Lipkin has a deep understanding of the way media can impact children. After starting her career in children’s television and earning a graduate degree in media and arts, Michelle discovered media literacy. Today, she spends her days steering a national organization that thinks critically about media creation and production—and its effect on all of us.

Part of Michelle’s work is counseling parents on how to raise media literate children—and we sat down to learn more about how families can navigate all forms of communication.

Tell us a bit about your work in media literacy.

As you can imagine, the world of media literacy has changed drastically over the last several years. A turning point was the election of Donald Trump and the way that he brought the concept of fake news into the cultural conversation. Suddenly, people were thinking about antidotes to fake news and that’s where media literacy comes in.

My organization is the national umbrella organization for media literacy education, and we have over 6,500 members. Not only in the U.S. but around the globe. A lot of our work is supporting the work of media literacy educators.

I have the opportunity to connect with so many different groups. So on a given day, I may be on the phone with an educator, another organization, Facebook or someone in the media industry—so it’s a vast network that we’re building. We’re trying to show that media literacy skills are not only a necessity but an urgent matter for today’s world. We need to do what we can to see some systemic change, not only inside the classroom but in continuing education.

How do you define media literacy?

It’s the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create and act using all forms of communication. The question is, what does it mean to be a literate citizen today? The purpose of media literacy is to ensure that people have the critical thinking skills, effective communication skills and all of those habits of inquiry, curiosity and skepticism that they need to navigate the media ecosystem.

Media literacy is an essential life skill. If you think about the disadvantage of being illiterate in the world today and you translate that into people that don’t understand media, you can start to see what an urgent problem this is. So many people don’t understand how things are made, why things are made, who is making the message and how to process information. That is vital today.

People that don’t have these skills are going to be at a disadvantage in some ways. And even worse than that, they might do damage because they are not processing information well. They are sharing information that might not be valid.

What is the biggest misconception about media literacy?

Right now, the biggest misconception about media literacy is that it’s solely about determining whether something is true or false. The fake news conversation brought media literacy into the spotlight, and that’s been positive. The downside is that people don’t truly understand the broad definition in that we’re not looking at information simply to find out if something is true or false.

Information is very complex and most of it falls somewhere between those two extremes. We need to analyze, understand and evaluate all types of information. Even false information! We need to understand issues of perspective, bias, audience and economics—and all of these elements of media that aren’t just about fake information.

What conversations should parents be having with their kids about media literacy?

If our goal is to create a healthy relationship with media and technology in the home, that is a different question than just how to keep kids safe. I frame the conversation in the context of six E’s: Exemplify, explain, engage, educate, empower and empathize.

“Exemplify” is this idea that it’s on us as parents to model good behavior for our kids. They’re watching what we’re doing more than they’re listening to what we’re saying. Exemplifying looks at the role of the parents’ relationship with media that the kids are seeing, noticing, observing. If we want our kids to have a healthy balance, if we want them to have a healthy relationship with social media, all of those things have to be demonstrated for them.

One interesting example is “sharenting,” where parents are oversharing or sharing without permission. That’s a mixed message. We say, “Be careful about your privacy, be careful about not oversharing,” and then kids realize that their parents have been sharing about them since they were born. We’re not going to be perfect, but we do have to take some responsibility for being a role model.

The second E is “explaining.” You can never talk too much about media and technology because it is such a big part of our lives. You need to set out from the very beginning that you’re going to talk a lot about this stuff; you’re going to talk about your expectations, you’re going to talk about the guidelines and the rules. So often the conflicts between parents and children, especially young children, are because they don’t know what the rules are. At some point, their parent thinks they’ve been on their phone too long and they tell them, “get off that thing,” leaving the kid confused. Being able to set up some guidelines and rules before usage is really important—especially with younger kids. And they have to be clear.

And then, at the same time, you also need to “engage,” which is different than explaining. Engaging is being together with media, making sure that you’re talking and playing with them on the media that they love. If they are big gamers, you should learn how to do some gaming, or at least sit down with them and talk to them about why they like that game. You should ask questions. You should make sure you’re having conversations that are not only about the rules but also about the enjoyment.

And then “educate.” Think about the way that we teach our kids to read—a child and a parent sitting next to each other. With technology, we often see it being handed off to the child and then the parent doing something else in their free time. My kids at this point are probably more tech savvy than I am, so they can teach me stuff, too. So, thinking in terms of preparing kids instead of just protecting them is part of that education piece.

The next E is “empower.” I always share the statistic that 65 percent of children entering primary school today will ultimately have a job that doesn’t exist yet. The question is what are we preparing them for? We tell kids to get off the screen, and then they go into the workforce and one of the first tasks we give them is social media. I won’t hire someone that doesn’t have a deep knowledge of social media and how to navigate all of those platforms. Kids are going to need to know how to code, how to create, how to edit, how to use Photoshop, how to create PowerPoints, use Google Sheets. So let them learn that stuff. Empower them.

And finally, “empathize.” I always end with this, because oftentimes we forget what it was like growing up and don’t recognize the challenges of growing up in a digital world. We grew up in private. Kids today are growing up in public, and that’s not easy. I don’t know a single grown-up that would say, “I wish everyone in the world could see pictures of me from middle school.” Let’s be willing to say, “wow, this must be hard.”

We are the last generation of parents that knew the world before the internet. We have to recognize that a lot of this stuff is new. There has been a phenomenal change in our systems of communication over the last two decades. We’re still learning and growing. We have to cut ourselves some slack and be patient. We also need to support and guide our children. The goals of parenting haven’t changed, even if technology has.