I've come to accept in the course of my media and political work, and in pursuing my journalism degree, that getting adults to examine or improve the way they encounter news, journalism and other media is a long, slow process, when it's even possible at all. Indeed, reversing and repairing some of the trends we've seen in recent years around the spread of misinformation, the vilification of journalists and the outright denial of science and facts may take generations.
Helping young people learn media literacy while they are still forming their media consumption habits, then, feels especially important. I'm no expert on this subject, but now I at least have a few years of direct experience as a parent trying to help our daughter develop and sharpen her own media literacy skills. Here are some experiments, tools and tactics I've found helpful along the way:
Talking about the media we encounter
Whether it's on a walk, drive, bike ride or just out to check the mail, I've tried to talk with my daughter about what she is seeing and hearing.
From an early age when she would excitedly open up the mailbox and find that booklet of coupons and advertisements from local businesses, we labeled those mailers "opportunities" and talked through what those businesses wanted us to do in looking through their ads, along with the pros and cons of us actually doing those things.
We'd point out billboards and talk through the process that led to some realtor's face or some grand sale being proclaimed to passers-by day and night.
At stores we'd point out the ways that packaging was designed to attract and compel a purchase, and how that could sometimes differ from the reality that would unfold after the purchase. We also talk about store and business names and what feelings or ideas they are trying to invoke in someone looking at them. What is a Dollar Store or a Party City and why did they call it that?
We don't have much exposure to TV ads at home given our use of streaming services, but when traveling we talk through the ads on hotel TVs and what they are offering, and why they use the approach they do.
Now, when my daughter encounters signs, packaging and advertisements, she's on the lookout for the motive behind the message, and she does a surprisingly good job of unpacking what's really happening.
Acknowledging our biases
During the election cycles she has been alive for, whether local or presidential, it's been tempting to try to keep our household conversations about candidates, campaigns, partisanship and possible outcomes out of earshot of our daughter, so as not to overly bias her toward a particular way of thinking or expose her to our own concerns and disappointments. But we also realized that by not talking about the political and election process and its importance in the world, she wouldn't have a chance to develop her own thinking, and might be more subject to groupthink or worse later on.
Instead, we try to be clear about why we're supportive of a particular candidate or party or way of thinking about an issue, while also trying to present how other people might be thinking about their own candidates, parties and views on issues. When we've taken her to a protest or a march or to volunteer for a campaign or candidate, we've not only emphasized why we're supporting that cause, but also why not everyone might be supportive in the same way, or at all.
I think we've steered clear of the dangers of "both sides" thinking while also making it plain that our views are not necessarily the only views or even the majority views on any given topic. We've tried to be open about the messiness and complexity of having views on messy and complex subjects, and make sure our daughter sees us modeling the process of wrestling with hard decisions while being mindful of our core values.
Reading and listening to the news together
Early on in her life I made a point of reading a newspaper or listening to the radio news with my daughter, and seeing what stories, phrases or ideas caught her attention. Sometimes even just a basic definition conversation — what does war mean? — could turn into a rich exploration of how the world works. And even though early on her focus might have been on the comics or puzzles, flipping through the paper to get there could yield some fun questions.
Now, when the local weekly paper arrives in our mailbox, our daughter is one its regular readers. She practices her skills sounding out new words and putting together complex sentences, and learns about what's happening in the community around her. Sometimes she even shouts out some breaking news. "There's a festival this weekend and they're going to have apple cider and we should go!"
One of our favorite regular news habits is listening to the KidNuz podcast, an every weekday ~5 minute recap of some of the previous day's news stories in a format that's very kid friendly, followed by a short "quiz" to test comprehension. In just those few minutes during breakfast or on the drive to school, my daughter takes in not only what's happening in the world but also how it's presented and what that might mean for how it's received.
Pointing out what, and who, are missing
The first time I bought a children's dictionary for our daughter, we were so excited that she would be able to look things up and learn about new words on her own. But when it arrived and I started flipping through it, I saw that almost all of the photos across the entire book were of affluent white people. Even worse, the bits of representation for people of color often followed negative stereotypes. It was awful and disappointing, but we turned it into a conversation that I think was helpful.
In general, we try to step back from any given media piece we're encountering together and identify what's missing. Where are the Black people in this movie? Where are the differently abled people in this museum? Where are the women in this story? Where are the people of color at this community event?
Sadly, there are almost endless opportunities to practice this in day to day life, and our daughter has become adept at noticing what's missing, even when we don't.
Saying "I don't know" and learning how to research what's true
We taught our daughter the term "mansplaining" early on. She loves saying it, and she loves pointing out when it's happening, especially when it's her dad doing it. As much as I try to be a man who errs on the side of listening and not assuming in conversations, I am still regularly humbled by her observations about when an explanation or statement might be too long, too much, or just not useful.
We try to make liberal use of the phrases "I don't know" or "I don't have any experience with that," and then turn to experts to learn more. Okay, sometimes the "expert" is Alexa or a random YouTube video instead of the library or a scholarly article, but we're glad to be intentional about bringing in other voices and perspectives to learn about something new to all of us.
It also leads to interesting meta conversations about when a source might be authoritative and useful, or when it might be suspect, even if it's more polished or flashy. What does the number of views on a YouTube video mean? When we search online, what does it mean that something is coming up as a top result? When Alexa says that she found an answer from "a community contributor," who might that be and how would they know?
These are some of the ways we've tried to bring more media literacy into our lives and into the growth and development of our daughter. Sometimes they seem to work, sometimes they're just self-gratifying exercises in feeling good, and sometimes they fall flat. But if even some of this intention around media literacy leads my daughter toward a life that is more connected to the truth and more able to sort through misinformation and deception in her personal relationships and experience of the world, then it will have been worth it.
There are of course lots of guides and articles out there about teaching kids media literacy. I'd also be interested to hear from others who have thought about or worked on this, to know what resources or tactics you've found helpful along the way.