SALT LAKE CITY — If your idea of teaching kids to be digitally savvy means showing them how to avoid phishing scams, create unbreakable passwords and stay off pornographic websites — then experts say you've got a lot to learn.
Media literacy — and its technological offspring 'digital literacy' — is a crucial component for success in an increasingly interconnected world, yet experts worry that too many schools and parents are woefully behind, either staying silent or getting stuck in fear-based conversations that do little to prepare students for the future.
"It's a changing world, and what worked 10 years ago is not going to work today, and we need to embrace that," said Michelle Ciulla Lipkin, executive director of the National Association for Media Literacy Education. "Embracing the need for media literacy education from the earliest age is so vital … and we're not hearing enough about that."
While experts may differ on what they call this education — digital literacy, media literacy, digital citizenship, e-literacy, new literacies — the end goal is the same: teach kids to think insightfully, adapt readily, question thoughtfully, contribute creatively and participate responsibly in an ever-changing world.
And these skills aren't just necessary for kids, experts say.
Adults have to navigate fake news, decipher what the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica privacy breach means for their personal information and avoid missteps like those of first lady Melania Trump, who was recently accused of plagiarizing an Obama-administration online media parenting pamphlet.
"We need to involve our communities, involve our parents … (because) the more we can talk about (media literacy) the better," said Michelle Cooper, a library media specialist at White Oak Middle School in East Texas who teaches media literacy to sixth- through eighth-graders. "Our kids are dealing with it everyday, making choices everyday while they're online that could impact their future. I absolutely think we should be talking about it more."
Moving past fear
But for many teachers and parents, the world of the internet still represents the worst of humanity: cyberbullying, hate speech, pornography, trolls.
"As the saying goes, a knife cuts both ways," says Jason Ohler, author, adjunct professor of media psychology at Fielding Graduate University and professor emeritus and distinguished president’s professor at the University of Alaska, where he helped create one of the first master's programs in educational technology in the mid-1980s. "We've been using knives to make art and stab people ever since they came into existence, and the same is true of our advanced technology. None of this should surprise us."
But it does. And it scares us too, which is why many parents and educators focus their media literacy talks on avoiding those pitfalls.
They remind kids that digital footprints last forever, sexting could land teens in jail and malicious scammers are always on the lookout for personal data.
"That's like … teaching someone to drive a car by bringing someone in to show them pictures of accidents," says Diana Graber, co-founder of CyberCivics, a digital citizenship literacy curriculum. "We are stuck. The internet is way too powerful and way too important to our livelihood to not understand it fully."
While online safety and security are important topics, experts say they're only a fraction of a much bigger discussion.
"Youth really like being in contexts in which we're not just trying to tell them a right/wrong answer," said Emily Weinstein, a postdoctoral fellow at Project Zero, a project of the Harvard Center for Education that includes The Good Play Project, a research initiative "exploring how young people navigate the positive opportunities and ethical challenges of digital life."
"We're really curious about how they think, and helping them think in more nuanced ways," she said.
And parents are fully equipped to have those conversations — despite feeling out of touch with the newest apps or latest platforms.
In fact, Weinstein encourages parents to "put the technology aside and instead try and ask … 'how would I respond if the technology wasn't involved at all?'"
Just because parents have never been insulted on AfterSchool or found out they were excluded from a party via a Story on Snapchat, doesn't mean they don't have advice for their child on how to deal with being left out, or how to respond to mean comments from peers.
"A lot of the experiences that adolescents are having and the things they're grappling with, it's true that the packaging is different, and in many cases social media has amplified what the challenge is, but fundamentally, feeling left out is not new," Weinstein said. "Technology didn't create the feeling of social exclusion."
Ohler has found that one helpful exercise is asking youth — not adults — to set up hypothetical rules and parameters for online behavior, because if teens don't "frame the system, they game the system," he said. "And boy, can they game the system. There is nothing more inviting to a creative, inspired 12-year-old than a barrier."
Learning to question
Real media literacy isn't about setting up blockades, or scaring kids away from certain situations — it's about teaching kids to question the messages all around them and then use that information to make better decisions.
Who created this? How did they get my attention? How might others view this message? What values are embedded? And why was this message sent?
Being able to question this way is a foundational process skill, explains Tessa Jolls, president and CEO of the Center for Media Literacy in Los Angeles. And it can be applied by anyone, to anything, anywhere.
Around Christmas, she'll invite children to describe a toy they've seen advertised and tell her what they like about it. Then, after Christmas, she'll have the same family come back in and bring in one of their gifts.
"In some cases, the toy is already broken, maybe the action figure doesn't move … and the kids are disappointed," she says. "It's not like what they saw in the commercials."
Parents can do the same thing, by teaching their kids to question ads and be skeptical of the promises they see and hear, she says.
But today, kids aren't just consuming media, they're creating it.
Thus, digital literacy means teaching skills that will enable "youth to participate in digital media in wise, safe and ethical ways," according to MediaSmarts, Canada's Centre for Digital and Media Literacy.
In Graber's CyberCivics, participation represents the highest rung of a literacy ladder — using technological tools to create and contribute through blogs, videos, art, and thus interact with a vibrant globally connected community.
Ohler has his students make e-portfolios, where they share the creative things they've made, whether it's a painting, an essay, movie, song, etc., so that it can come up at the top of a future Google search of their name.
This is where digital literacy becomes digital citizenship, says Michelle Linford, executive director of Epik: Deliberate Digital, a Utah-based nonprofit working to unite communities to raise a deliberate digital generation.
"Just as being a good citizen doesn't just mean not getting arrested and not doing drugs, not causing problems," she said. "Being a good digital citizen is a lot more than just avoiding the bad."
When to start
So if media literacy and digital citizenship skills are so crucial for kids' success in a 21st-century world, when is the best time to teach them?
Some believe media literacy should begin in kindergarten and continue through high school, while others encourage a delayed approach.
"There isn't a consensus of when is the best time to bring in tech and when is the best time to bring in media literacy," said Lipkin. "From our perspective, if tech is being used from the earliest of ages … we should do whatever we can to make sure that their school life reflects the world that they live in."
Common Sense Media uses the term digital citizenship program, which starts in kindergarten by using games and asking students questions like, "What kinds of information should you keep to yourself when you use the internet?" "How can you give credit to your own creative work?" and "What can you do when someone is mean to you online?"
In Cooper's Texas middle school, kids love the lesson on fake news, where she'll put up a few websites and the kids have to guess if they're real or not.
"It always seems to trip them up," says Cooper, a Common Sense Media Ambassador. "(They learn) to be careful about what's out there, because even if it looks legit, it may not be."
By 12th grade, students face deeper questions like, "What does it mean to do the right thing online?" and "How do you present yourself to the world online and offline?" as well as technical questions like "How do websites collect your personal information, and what can you do about it?"
"There’s been a tipping point in the last couple years (around) digital citizenship," said Kelly Mendoza, senior director of education programs for Common Sense Media. "Schools recognize (that) as they integrate technology they have to have a foundation around responsible use and ... create a culture in the school around the expectations (for) tech use."
Shaheer Faltas, head of the Greenwood School, in Mill Valley, California, an independent pre-kindergarten through 8th grade school, believes the best way to prepare students for life in the digital world is to prepare them for life in the physical world.
Faltas has spoken out against tech inundation at young ages and believes that rather than throwing iPads at kindergarteners, it's important to teach young kids to listen, play in groups, take care of their bodies, appreciate nature, eat well and use their imagination. Then, at the right time, introduce tech.
"You don't need technological tools to teach kids to be good people," he said. "Giving them tools before their cognitive capacities have been formed? You're asking for trouble."
Which is why when his district piloted Graber's CyberCivics at Journey School, a public charter school in Aliso Viejo, California, in 2010, they aimed it at sixth-, seventh and eighth-grade students.
In sixth grade, students look at case studies of ethical issues related to tech use and their behavior and choices — without using technology. Then, in seventh and eighth grades, they increased their tech use and dove into the more technical aspects of an online world.Comment on this story
Open-ended discussions, rather than more time on computers, offer powerful teaching moments at home or at school, experts say, because they allow kids to grapple with aspects of digital life that don't have clear right or wrong answers.
"Parenting in a digital age is hard," said Linford with Epik: Deliberate Digital, "But (parents), don't lose sight of the fact that you're still trying to build a relationship with your children and you do that side-by-side as you're discovering what tech means and what you want it to mean in your lives and in your home."