Even very young children require media literacy to learn from technology

Like reading, how to effectively use and navigate media is a skill that children have to learn
Brad Flicking, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0
Brad Flicking, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

With technology playing a bigger role in the classroom and children utilizing computers, tablets, and apps to learn, making sure children know how to use these different types of media is becoming more important. Like reading, how to effectively use and navigate media is a skill that children have to learn. Media literacy, or the ability to use different types of media and understand their message, comes in stages and for children between the ages of three and five, “rudimentary skills” are what’s being acquired.

“The most important rudimentary skill for kids is to understand what symbols are,” says Anna Katharina Diergarten, a researcher in the Department of Psychology at the University of Würzburg, Germany. For example, understanding that a picture of a bowl of popcorn is just a picture, not an actual bowl that can be eaten from or knocked over. Older kids then begin to learn critical evaluation skills like that a commercial is an advertisement meant to sell you something, not a short film presenting irrefutable facts.

In a new study, Diergarten and her colleagues tested 150 children between the ages of four and six to understand how rudimentary media skills influence children’s ability to learn from different media. Since children this age are working on obtaining rudimentary skills – or what signs and symbols mean – the children were first evaluated for their media sign literacy by an online test that largely measured their computer-based skills. An intelligence test was also given.

Afterwards, children participated in two activities. For one, they watched a clip from a popular German TV program that described how sugar was produced from beets and then answered questions about what they had watched.

In the second activity, the children navigated a hypermedia environment – a computer program organized like Wikipedia that allowed them to explore topics with progressively greater detail. They first chose whether they wanted to learn about people, animals, plants, or buildings. If they chose animals, for example, they were then given the choice of clicking on a bear, whale, penguin, or kangaroo. Some information was given about each and the kids could click on an animal to learn even more. The information was given by a prerecorded audio file. After navigating the program, the children were again given a questionnaire on what they had learned.

How important is media literacy?

The researchers found that how well children scored on their post-activity questionnaires had a lot to do with age. Intelligence played a factor as well. But media sign literacy contributed significantly to how well the children learned from the film and the computer program, even more so than intelligence did. When it came to the film, media literacy not only correlated with comprehension of the material explicitly stated in the film, like what color a sugar beet is, but also with the child’s ability to make inferences about the topic beyond what the film covered – for example, understanding why there are side slits on the pot cooking the beets.

“It’s important that kids use television, computers, and other media not only by themselves but also with an adult present.”

This wasn’t observed in the hypermedia environment, which is likely due to the fact that children already had a lot of background knowledge of the information provided by the computer program and would be able to make inferences regardless of their level of media literacy.

Demonstrating how important media literacy is for learning even at an early age informs us as to how we should be teaching children to use media. “It’s important that kids use television and computers and other media not only by themselves but also with an adult present,” says Diergarten. Building on these findings, Diergarten is beginning to test a media literacy teaching program for preschool- and kindergarten-aged children.