Happily Ever Elephants’ Guide to Helping Children Learn Good Digital Citizenship & Media Literacy Skills
Good digital citizenship? Media literacy skills? What does it all mean? No matter how we look at it, our children are becoming more technologically savvy every day - some even more so than their parents and teachers. But what are your child’s digital rights and responsibilities? And how do we teach these skills? If you have any of these questions, this is the post for you!
Screen time. The term alone is enough to send a shudder down your spine. When breaks from school are upon us, whether a regular weekend or an extended vacation, kids are merry, adults are merry, and let’s admit it— it’s a time when we all get a little lax. In our house, bedtimes are later, cookies are a plenty, and I’m more concerned with my boys letting loose and enjoying some good old-fashioned play than I am about reeling them in. These days, though, break time is often synonymous with that single, dreaded phrase: screen time.
“Mommy, can I play on the iPad?”
“Mommy, I want your phone!”
“Mommy, can I pleeeeease watch videos?”
My fists clench. My head spins. And then, I have a running debate in my head. Phone? No. Videos? Absolutely not. But how about the iPad, if it is used solely for an educational game or app? I reluctantly give in, set a timer, hand over the iPad, and let my boys play. But is this the right thing to do? I question myself time and time again.
The Growing Debate Around Screen Time
Technology is ubiquitous these days. From watches to phones to tablets to smart televisions, high-tech gadgets have pervaded nearly every aspect of our lives. And yes - I get it. The benefits are tremendous. But there are also serious drawbacks to this technological invasion, especially when it comes to our children. These challenges are twofold.
First, what kind of impact does all of this technology have on our little ones and their developing brains? A recent episode of 60 Minutes highlighted an extensive study conducted at the National Institute of Health that analyzed the effects of technology on adolescent brain development, mental health, and emotional development. The study involves nine and ten year old children, and researchers will study more than 11,000 kids for a decade. The results from brain scans so far? Kids who use smartphones, tablets or play video games more than seven hours a day showed significant acceleration of “cortical thinning,” a thinning of the outermost layer of the brain that processes information from the five senses. But here’s the problem. We don’t know what exactly that means yet. We don’t know how or if this will affect our children long term, or if it is even definitely attributable to the screens. And, yet, that’s not it. Children who are allowed more than two hours a day of screen time also consistently scored lower than other children on thinking and language tests. Additionally, preliminary findings have shown that heavy screen use was associated with lower scores on some aptitude tests.
So what do we do with this preliminary data? How do we know if these results are lasting, or even meaningful? The technology is so new, and the research hasn’t been conducted for long enough to adequately test and measure the effects in a concrete and significant way. One thing is clear though: our kids, unfortunately are, the guinea pigs of this technological revolution.
And then there’s this: the effects on brain development are far from being the only problem. Second, and critically important, being online is not always safe, both from physical and emotional perspectives. How do we keep our children protected when they venture online? How do we keep them from engaging in dangerous or destructive behaviors? In this growing technological world, our kids are having to decipher so much on the internet. They have to learn whether information they find online is real or fake. They have to learn whether people they meet online are real or fake. And they have to navigate the increasingly “no harm, no foul” world of social media — a world where perfection reigns supreme, and kids are suffering in their attempts to attain a new standard of cool.
Digital Rights and Responsibilities: How to Instill Good Digital Citizenship and Media Literacy Skills in our Children
So what do we do with this information? Whether looking at screen time’s adverse effects on the brain or the way it has already begun to impact our kids’ social emotional well being, it’s daunting, I know. And overwhelming. And let’s be honest, there’s very little chance that any of us will take an entirely screen free hiatus. It’s simply not realistic that we enforce a vehement no screen rule at home, especially when so many of our children need to use the internet for educational purposes, like simple homework and research assignments. And yes, there are still some tremendous benefits to our screens— even educational benefits!
In light of this research, the most vital thing we can do is continue to educate ourselves and each other as we chart this unknown territory. We can arm ourselves with knowledge, and most importantly, we can share the information we acquire with our children as we teach them about their digital rights and responsibilities. What is the best way to do this? Use stories, of course! There are some fantastic picture books that will help spark critical conversations about good digital citizenship and media literacy skills with our kids, conversations necessary to helping them find balance and foster their screen-smarts. But before we turn to the awesome books that will help you in this mission, here are some important phrases you should know and understand, so you can talk about them with your kids:
Digital citizenship: Just as our kids learn to be upstanding citizens in their schools, communities and the world at large, they must also learn to be responsible and respectful internet users. Good digital citizenship simply means being safe on the internet, as well as being responsible and smart when surfing the web. We nurture good digital citizenship by teaching children to: be kind and respectful when they choose to publish a comment, picture, video or blogpost, or in responding to any of the foregoing; cite internet sources accurately without trying to pass off another person’s words as their own; always conduct themselves in an appropriate manner while online; and report abusive conduct they see on the net.
Media literacy: Media literacy refers to the ability to access and analyze media to determine its authenticity and legitimacy, as well as the message the media seeks to convey. Kids are regularly inundated with information, and developing media literacy in children helps them learn to decode messages, think critically, understand what the creators want us to take away from the media, become a smart and informed consumer who can readily assess whether information is real or “fake,” and create their own media responsibly.
With these phrases in mind, here are some terrific picture books to help children and students of all ages learn about their digital rights and responsibilities. It is important for our children to understand that we are not saying NO to screen time but instead seeking to find balance, foster good digital citizenship and enhance their media literacy skills. We hope these books help you too, and we can’t wait to learn whether these stories get two trunks up in your homes and classrooms as well!
Good Digital Citizenship - Acting Responsibly & Respectfully On Social Media
Nerdy Birdy Tweets, by Aaron Reynolds and illustrated by Matt Davies: If you refrain from making a nasty comment to a classmate in person, is it ok to post that comment online instead? This is one of the awesome questions sparked by Nerdy Birdy Tweets. Reynolds and Davies have given us the perfect book to start a conversation about what it means to be a responsible and respectful internet user, particularly when it comes to social media. I fell in love with this story instantly and believe it should be required reading for students of all ages. For our full review of Nerdy Birdy Tweets, click here!
The Technology Tail: A Digital Footprint Story, by Julia Cook and illustrated by Anita DuFalla: If you are looking for a story that is helpful in explaining to children that what they do online will stay online forever, this is the book for you. From texting to tweeting, posting comments to posting pictures, kids actions online can literally follow them for life, creating a digital trail that cannot be deleted. Though at times a little wordy, making it better for elementary students and older, it is nonetheless a fabulous book for introducing digital rights and responsibilities to children.
Media Literacy Skills
But I Read it on the Internet!, by Toni Buzzeo and illustrated by Sachiko Yoshikawa: Did George Washington really have wooden teeth? Carmen thinks that if she read it on the internet, it must be true. But her classmate George believes that books are the only tools you can truly use when researching. What to do? Their trusty librarian saves the day, teaching them how to evaluate, analyze and cite sources online. We love the “Website Evaluation Gizmo” the book provides, as well as the way this story teaches children how to go about determining the legitimacy of websites. This is an excellent story for every home and classroom, and it makes a great book to use in a discussion of determining whether information found online is “real” or “fake.”
Making “Friends” on the Internet - Online Safety
Chicken Clicking, by Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross: Late one night, Chick journeys into the farmer’s house and the farmer’s computer calls her name. Chick starts to go shopping, and soon she’s buying stuff for her whole family. Then… she meets a new friend online, and the two make plans to meet up. Chick is so excited! But when she arrives for their get together, her new “friend” isn’t actually a “friend” at all. We love this one. It is “Little Red Riding Hood” for this new generation of tech-savvy kids, and it packs a powerful punch with an ending kids won’t soon forget.
Screen Smarts and Healthy Internet Habits
Once Upon a Time Online: Happily Ever After is Only A Click Away!, by David Bedford and illustrated by Rosie Reeve: This great story uses well-known fairytale characters to illustrate the trouble we can get in if we don’t watch ourselves online. Sure, instant gratification can so easily be had from shopping online, gaming, or Facetiming friends (or princes!)… but what happens when bills arrive, you begin losing friends because your habits are turning you into a dullard, and your eyes are so glued to your screen that you can’t even walk around without getting yourself into trouble? We love this book’s clever approach and the way it encourages kids to talk with their grownups before going online.
If You Give a Mouse an iPhone: A Cautionary Tale, by Ann Droyd: Oh man. We’ve all been there. Our kids beg us and beg us for attention, but we need just ten more minutes. So we give them our iPhone… and then disaster strikes when we try to take it away. This book, a parody of the brilliant, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, by Laura Numeroff, describes what happens to kids when they are handed our gadgets — how they get sucked in, stop hearing anyone around them, and lose all connection to the real world. It’s clever, witty and fun for adults and children alike.
The Beauty of Unplugging and Disconnecting
On a Magical Do-Nothing Day, by Beatrice Alemanga: Remember the days when we didn't have to worry about screens cracking or batteries dying, and the only volume anyone was concerned about was whether kids were properly using their inside voices? If you think your kids are getting too much screen time, hide the phones, take away the iPads, snuggle up on the couch, and read this book. And then go outside, play hide and seek, and enjoy nature together. Sometimes we all need a reminder to unplug and look up — and this book will help you do just that. For our full review of On a Magical Do-Nothing Day, click here!
Unplugged, by Steve Antony: Technology is great, there’s no doubt about it. But it is absolutely no substitute for real, live play… the kind of play that comes in the form of actual engagement with others and actual running around outside, in the fresh air, with friends. We love the way this book showcases the power of play and the revitalization that comes from a technological break.
Hello! Hello!, by Matthew Cordell: Devices dominate in this fabulous book about Lydia, a young girl trying to grab her family’s attention. But everyone is glued to a gadget, and they hardly have time for a hello: mom is working on her laptop, dad is texting on his phone, and her brother doesn’t even respond. Though the television shouts, hello! Lydia doesn’t want to watch tv. So she ventures outside on her own, where there are so many things saying hello to her! Will Lydia’s tech-crazed family be interested in her new treasures when she arrives home, or will they stay stuck to their screens? We love Matthew Cordell - his books are just fabulous!