Media Literacy for Kids: The Ultimate Guide

Media literacy is touted as one of the most important “21st century skills” for kids to master, in line with creativity, communication, and grit. Thinking through the amount of time most of us spend interacting with some form of media each day makes a good case for this.

Emily Veno
August 23, 2023

Prisma is the world’s most engaging virtual school that combines a fun, real-world curriculum with powerful mentorship from experienced coaches and a supportive peer community.

Picture these scenarios:

  1. You grab dinner with your girlfriends after seeing the latest summer blockbuster, Barbie. The discussion turns to the film’s messages about gender roles, sparking a spirited debate.
  2. You’re scrolling social media the day after a Presidential debate. You see a meme combining a shocking line from the debate with a clip from a popular sitcom. Understanding both references, you laugh, and re-post the meme.
  3. You type “best food processors” into Google. You begin to read an article until you notice it’s sponsored by a food processor company. You click the back button and read a Reddit thread instead.

In these everyday life examples, you’re using media literacy skills to make sense of the entertainment and information you encounter.

Media literacy is touted as one of the most important “21st century skills” for kids to master, in line with creativity, communication, and grit. Thinking through the amount of time most of us spend interacting with some form of media each day makes a good case for this. The 2022 Common Sense Media Census reported teens use media for an average of more than 8 hours per day, with tweens using media for more than 5 hours per day.

When I did media literacy research at Harvard, I discovered how hard it was for media researchers to keep up with this rapid change. Most schools aren’t designed to allow significant time for media literacy in the curriculum, either. At Prisma, we’re more passionate about teaching media literacy than the average school, because we believe helping kids become savvy media consumers is essential for their future success. In this article, we’ll unpack what media literacy is and how you can fill the gaps for your children at home, using examples from our favorite Prisma media literacy lesson plans.

What is media literacy?

You may have come across the term 'media literacy' and thought: sounds good, but what is it exactly? To break it down, let's first understand what we mean by media. Media encompasses a vast range of mass communication tools, from traditional forms of media like newspapers and television to modern ones such as websites and social media.

But what about literacy? Literacy isn't only about reading and writing—it extends to the skills we use to interpret, evaluate, and create content. Literacy skills in the context of media involve critically analyzing the messages we consume and understanding the motives behind them.

When referring to media literacy for kids, what people are often talking about is:

  1. Understanding and managing media usage and “screen time”
  2. Deciphering the reliability and intent of news media
  3. Becoming adept in digital media literacy, which includes the vast and influential world of social media

As we help young people navigate our heavily media-saturated world, media literacy education is key to making sure they're smart and thoughtful about what they come across.


Media Literacy Skills

Healthy Media Consumption for Kids

One integral component of media literacy is the cultivation of healthy media consumption habits. Although the rise in screen use among kids can feel frightening, not all screen time is detrimental. Quality, purposeful content can be both enlightening and engaging, and learning the art of moderation will help your child use media in a healthy way as they mature.

Here's a breakdown of expert advice depending on age:

Early Childhood:

  1. Focus both on quality of content and duration, but know there is research demonstrating benefits below one hour per day of screen time in early childhood years (prior to age 5). Use resources like the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) for more guidelines tailored to this age group.
  2. Co-viewing or co-playing is beneficial. Watch shows or play games together, discussing the content and media messages being presented. Look up and take advantage of the parent resources & enrichment activities that many shows for toddler-aged kids have available online (such as on PBS Learn)!

Elementary & Middle Schoolers:

  1. Although co-viewing isn’t as important as it is for younger kids, learners of this age often get deeply absorbed in and emotionally connected to their favorite shows, movies, and books. Try to understand why and you’ll get to know your child better!
  2. Set time limits for device usage and designate device-free periods, like during meals. For those with personal devices, establish clear rules, such as device-free periods before bedtime, and monitor content.
  3. Refer to Common Sense Media reviews (covering movies, TV, books, games, and more) for insights on age-appropriate content.

High Schoolers:

  1. Encourage teens to be critical thinkers about media they consume. Watch news coverage together (ideally from across the political spectrum) and talk about the different perspectives openly.
  2. Promote self-regulation in your teen’s media habits, especially as they get old enough to have smartphones or personal computers. Rather than taking a device away at a certain time, ask them to design their own system for managing screen time and help them hold themselves accountable.
  3. Maintain open dialogue about their online experiences, transitioning from strict controls to more guidance and understanding. It’s healthy for older kids to have private spaces with their friends, once they’ve proven they can handle this responsibly.

Regardless of age, the key is not to view screen time as a villain but to integrate it wisely into daily routines, ensuring it is a constructive experience.

At Prisma, we teach healthy media consumption through special challenges and missions embedded in our interdisciplinary themes. For example, in our Cyber Citizens theme, middle schoolers collected data about their own media usage and compared it to their peers. Then, they set goals for adjusting their usage. In our high school Life Skills course, learners studied the book Atomic Habits and built new habits, many choosing to focus on screen time reduction.

News Literacy

In our current media landscape, inundated with information that may or may not be “fake news,” news media literacy is paramount. This skill not only arms kids against misinformation and disinformation but also nurtures critical thinking skills, ensuring they can discern and understand our world’s complexity. At home, building news media literacy might look like guiding kids in analyzing a news story, understanding different perspectives, and critically evaluating the point of view presented.

Here are some age-appropriate strategies to nurture news media literacy specifically:

Early Childhood:

  1. Start with reading simple news stories (nothing too scary!) and discuss the basic elements: Who, What, When, Where, and Why. Newsela can simplify the reading level of news stories, or, copy the text into ChatGPT and ask it to adjust the reading level.
  2. Encourage questions about everything young children hear or see, fostering innate curiosity.

Elementary & Middle School:

  1. Introduce the concept of 'fake news' and explain the difference between misinformation (unintentional errors) and disinformation (deliberate falsehoods). Talk about how you might gently correct misinformation if you see it shared by a friend.
  2. Show them how to use fact-checking websites to verify the authenticity of a news story. Here’s a list of good ones from Common Sense Media.
  3. Engage in discussions introducing different perspectives on a single issue, emphasizing the importance of understanding multiple points of view. At Prisma, we love using the website AllSides for this!

High School:

  1. Challenge teenagers with more complex news stories, prompting them to identify potential biases or inaccuracies. Consider getting a family subscription to a few different publications and reading them together, rather than relying on social media for news. Incorporate regular fact-checking as part of this routine.
  2. Consider encouraging your teenager to write an op-ed, record a podcast, or experiment with creating their own media in other ways. The New York Times holds frequent contests for young writers, and includes helpful resources and lesson plans.
  3. Play the Bad News Game or Fake It to Make It, both of which we’ve used in the Prisma curriculum.

At Prisma, we teach news media literacy through weekly learner-led Current Events discussions in our daily Standup workshops. Middle and high school learners identify a topic in the news they want to talk about, and our learning coaches use resources like AllSides to facilitate discussions exploring different points of view.

We also teach learners how to cite & evaluate sources and compare conflicting sources of information through interdisciplinary themes like Unsolved Mysteries (where 4-8th graders chose a real-life mystery and researched evidence).

Digital Media Literacy and Social Media

Popular platforms like TikTok and YouTube offer blends of entertainment, learning, and connection. Beyond the maze of misinformation, there's a personal journey of crafting and safeguarding one's digital identity.

Here's a roadmap to teaching kids about social media specifically:

Early Childhood:

  1. Leverage parental controls and avoid letting children freely explore. Platforms like YouTube Kids can have inappropriate or overly commercialized content slip through the cracks!
  2. Introduce "real" vs. "make-believe" discussions using simple YouTube videos. Explain how videos might only show the happiest moments.
  3. Begin instilling respect for their digital identity; consider asking for permission before posting a photo of them online.

Elementary & Middle School:

  1. Discuss the curated nature of social media, illustrating how it often showcases a selected “highlight reel.”
  2. Introduce them to the hallmarks of sponsored content (such as seeing #ad or #sponsored in the captions of a video), emphasizing the reasons someone might promote certain items. Kids this age also might not understand how social media creators are incentivized to sensationalize content by being paid per view, click, and subscription.
  3. Start conversations about their evolving digital identity. For instance, if they want to share an achievement online, guide them on deciding which platform is suitable and who should have access.

High School:

  1. Discuss how social media makes them feel. Delve deeper into the effects of social media on mental health using this Common Sense article.
  2. Educate teens about algorithms, highlighting how their interactions might bias their online experience. Consider comparing news feeds; how is what they see different from a parent, friend, or sibling? The documentary The Social Dilemma introduces this idea well.
  3. Reinforce the importance of data privacy, exploring together the implications of sharing personal information and how various platforms might use such data.
  4. Collaboratively discuss their digital identity, guiding them on decisions about what to keep private, what to share, and the long-term implications of their digital footprint.

At Prisma, we tackle digital media literacy consistently throughout the year, starting with our annual orientation preparing kids to safely learn virtually. Through fun missions and challenges, learners discover everything from how to convey meaning in texts and emails to how to use Google search to how to build their own personal website.

In our collaborative workshops, learners debate ethical issues of life online: Should ads be allowed to photoshop models and products? Should parents be allowed to post videos of their kids without their permission? Should there be laws against disinformation?

We believe through active engagement and open dialogue, we can empower kids to not only navigate but also shape their digital journey with awareness, responsibility, and integrity.

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