Respect in a Digital World: Media Literacy Week 2015

Andrea Tomkins

It’s Media Literacy Week! This is actually the tenth annual Media Literacy Week, which runs November 2-6. If you’re reading this, it’s likely that you already have a good handle on what media literacy is all about.

As a blogger, and in my day-to-day life as a mother of two teenagers, I talk to a surprising number of parents about this thing called media literacy. I’m not entirely sure that everyone understands what it entails, but when I explain it, there is inevitably a lot of head nodding and agreement. Ultimately, media literacy is about giving young people some critical thinking skills that will help them engage with media as active and informed digital citizens.

Our family went on an archeological dig recently (ok, we were unpacking boxes in our basement) and unearthed a relic that was integral to my youth: ye old record player. My husband hooked it up and soon we were flipping through stacks of old records. My daughters immediately found the soundtracks to Grease and the Sound of Music. ABBA also got played, twice, and as I puttered around the house, singing every word to every song on that album, I remembered how important it was to me at the time: lying on the floor, pouring over every detail on the record cover – back and front – and scrutinizing the liner notes. The ritual of pulling the album out of its sleeve, placing it on the record player, and putting the needle down in the right place… it was a big deal.

This might sound like a surge of teenage melodrama, but music was crucial to my existence. I’m sure my favourite albums horrified my parents (it was all Depeche Mode, the Smiths, the Cure) but music was my world, and even though the consumption of it was often a solitary pursuit, it connected me with my friends –and my generation – in a major way.

This is something I think about as I watch my daughters grow up in a digital era. I constantly struggle to understand both the impact and their place within the realm of tech and social media. Music is still a touchstone – and like my parents before me there’s certainly a lot of modern music I can’t stand – but there’s also Netflix, Snapchat, Instagram and seemingly a hundred other tools and websites and channels that loom large in their lives. And there seems to be something new around every corner. I struggle to find a balance, but I know it’s important to them, just how my music was important to me. When I really think about it, the questions I’m asking myself probably aren’t too far from what my own parents worried about: How much is too much screen time? Are they getting enough sleep? Are they rewiring their brains in a bad way? Are they learning everything they need to know in order to be good citizens of the world? Is all of this technology helping or hindering their growth? (And I thought the baby years were going to be tough! Man, was I wrong.)

The most challenging parenting moments are most likely to come at the least convenient times. We’ll be up to my elbows in raw chicken when one of our little people comes out of nowhere to ask how babies are made. The bottom falls out of the garbage bag just as our tween tells us her friend emailed a semi-nude photo of herself to a boy in their class, or that someone she doesn’t know has sent a friend request on Facebook. Worst-case scenario: we’re left stammering and unprepared, and we tell our kids we’d be happy to talk about it as soon as we wash the chicken juice off of our hands. But here’s the thing -- if we try to understand the issues before the sneak attack happens, we can better guide our kids when the time comes.

As parents, we can only do what we can with the resources we have available to us. It’s very easy to be overwhelmed or bury our heads in the sand and cross our fingers and assume our kids are going to be all right, but I don’t think this is the best approach.

No matter how busy we are, we do actually have time. We can find a moment to talk to our kids about what it means to be a good person, both online and offline. We have time to gently guide our kids and explain why it’s important to safeguard our privacy online, for example, or to think about what we share about ourselves online and respect others in the process. This doesn’t have to be a lecture either. We can talk about these things in the car on the way to soccer practice, as we’re packing lunches in the morning, or around the dinner table at night.

We have the Internet. And by that, of course, I am talking about more than just funny videos of cats getting stuck in shoeboxes. We can use Facebook to ask our peer group about how they are managing media at home. We can ask for advice and for support. (It takes a village, after all!) And it’s easier than ever to find online resources developed by subject-matter experts, so we don’t have to do all of the heavy lifting by ourselves. MediaSmarts has created free bilingual resources that can be used by anyone – parents, youth, teachers, caregivers – either at home or at school or in a community setting. They give us some solid strategies, and food for thought, as we make our way through the world we are living in right now.

The theme for Media Literacy Week this year is Respect in a Digital World. It’s timely, isn’t it? Because once our kids have this foundation, they’re better equipped to deal with any tools or technology that’s just around the corner.

This is a great time to check out the new workshops and activities that have been launched in preparation for Media Literacy Week 2015. They’ve been developed with up-to-date research and survey results from parents and young people alike, and are designed to encourage young people to be their best selves, online and offline.