Teach Your Kids Media Literacy Right From the Beginning

Five strategies you can use with your children

K is a boy who goes to primary school. As a toddler, he liked to reach for the phone. But because his parents did not let him play with it, he lost interest in it after a while. K didn’t have access to a TV either, so all he had by means of digital and video stimulation were the laptops that were always in use, and an iPad that was locked.

Enter COVID-19, lockdown.

Exit school, friends, grandparents, outdoors.

In the last 60+ days, all he’s had access to are books and comics (going through an Asterix phase), toys (they hold his interest only for a while), his crafts and drawing materials (used daily), a broom (whose thin twig-like shoots make for great swords) and oodles of time.

Also, the iPad.

Now it so happens that K is an expert at amusing himself with his imagination, so it is not uncommon for his father, OD (Overprotective Dad) to hear him talk to himself. K’s background murmurings have become so much like white noise in fact to OD that he ignores them with great ease.

But early into the lockdown, OD overheard a different conversation: K talking to Siri, the iPad’s virtual assistant. K’s questions to Siri went something like this:

“Siri, how strong were Roman fighters?”

“Siri, when did the Roman empire end?”

“Siri, who is stronger, a Roman soldier or a Samurai?”

And then:

“Siri, can a Roman soldier kill a Samurai?”

OD jumped in before he could get the answer to that question.

Start right at the beginning

As a parent, you have to learn to let go right from the beginning. When your children are toddlers, you have full control over everything they experience. You pick the playthings and toys, you curate their playdates, and you teach them how to deal with the world through your words and actions.

But once they start school, you start to lose control in ever larger chunks. You don’t know who talks to your child, what they’re learning from teachers and peers and so on. When they return from school, you can cajole them into recounting the day, but you always get an edited version.

When your kids latch onto the world of entertainment: TV, computer games and the internet, you lose even more control. You might say no to a 100 videos on YouTube, but one day, tired out by their unflagging demands, you say yes to the 101st.

By this time, it might be useful if you’ve imparted a few lessons to your child on how to handle the world of relentless information.

So a good time to start teaching them about media literacy would be around the time you start showing them their first videos on YouTube, WhatsApp or TV.

Every step a potential fall

Just when they began dealing with the iPad, the school announced that they would begin online classes. Phew, OD thought, At least K will be busy.

But getting to classes online presented a new set of problems. K would need to operate a browser on his own. No problem there, but because OD used that computer for work and did not want to close multiple tabs, K would need to use Incognito mode.

This was a problem.

OD believed that allowing his child to use Incognito mode would be like handing him the keys to a gun cabinet. Like most kids, K will eventually figure out that Incognito mode comes with no browsing history. OD worried; what if K starts looking at violent stuff, crazy conspiracy theories and porn online? Is Incognito mode the ultimate gateway drug?

OD in fact had yet another problem: K would need his own email ID to log in to the online classes. He felt the boy was too young to have to leave his mark on the internet in any manner. He didn’t want Google to start tracking him through its various products. And partly because he didn’t like the idea of facial recognition software being used to map his son’s face, OD hadn’t posted any photos on social media in a long time.

OD briefly considered creating a false email ID for his son. But after speaking to a few friends, he decided that a Gmail ID for his son under his real name was the least worst option.

K was of course excited to have email, and quickly began emailing thatha, nana and nani, pecking at the keyboard with one finger at first, and then slowly using two fingers.

Strategies to begin with

There’s only so much you can do to shield your child from the craziness online. Block one app and one service, and they will learn to use another. Ban all electronics if you like, but your child’s friends will still rope them into online adventures.

The best way out is to expose your children gradually to every crazy, worrisome thing out there, starting in phases and in limited quantities. Always be sure to complement these online explorations with plenty of conversation.

  • As you give them access to computer games, talk to them about violence.

  • Allow them YouTube, Facebook and Instagram, but also talk about how algorithms are designed to specifically addict your child into consuming more and more content.

  • Tell them you can find anything on the internet, but also teach them to cross-reference the information to verify it.

And so on.

Of course, the above examples are age-specific. In coming weeks and months, we’ll talk about how to teach online safety to kids in Grade 1 and 2, tweens, teens, and young adults.

For now, here are five strategies you can use when your 6-year-old and above starts to watch media, including the news. (You don’t need to do everything on this list. That would depend on the age of your child.)

  1. Who made the story, video, game, film or news report?

  2. Why did they make it?

  3. What did they get to make it?

  4. What techniques are they using to persuade you?

  5. Who’s included in the message and who’s missing?

Some of these strategies are used by fact-checkers, and some are used by media literacy educators. Combined together, they make for a powerful checklist.

A note of caution however: while you will need to teach your child to question everything, you don’t want to turn them into cynics or conspiracy theorists. You will need to strike a balance. We will explore how in due course.

Compared to most of his peers, K is still somewhat sheltered. He has very little access to TV news, advertisements, YouTube videos and online games. In the last 60-odd days however, he has cemented his relationship with various streaming platforms. Lockdown or not, the world is getting closer and closer.

For his part, OD is learning to chill out. He even found out for his son that a Samurai warrior would probably make quick work of the Roman soldier.

Media Buddhi by BOOM is a newsletter dedicated to helping us stay sane and stay safe in a world of information overload—one idea at a time. Please consider sharing this article with someone.


And subscribe to receive new issues in your inbox.

Image credit: Shutterstock