Should parents change their tune on children and media literacy in the digital age?

Smartphones, tablets, computers at home, computers at school, computers at the library, augmented reality, video games…the list of new platforms that children have available to engage with goes on for miles. Although the platforms for media consumption may be shiny and new, that doesn’t exactly change the way parents should approach media exposure for their children.

“The most important way children learn language, how to socialize, is by their interaction one-on-one with their parents,” said “St. Louis on the Air” panelist Dr. Ken Haller. “Media can supplement that but it can’t substitute it. One of the things we’re learning through research around media and children is that media itself is not so much the problem as it is the fact that we tend to substitute media, electronic media, for one-on-one human interaction.”

“St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh moderates a live panel on children and the media for Media Literacy Week.


Haller was one of four panelists that joined “St. Louis on the Air” on Monday for a broadcast in front of a live audience on children and the media as part of Gateway Media Literacy Partners’ 10th annual Media Literacy Week. This year, the week coincides with a national media literacy week as well and people are joining in the conversation on Twitter with the #MediaLitWk hashtag. Panelists included:

  • Art Silverblatt, media literacy scholar and professor emeritus, Webster University
  • Brenda Fyfe, Professor and Dean, Webster University’s School of Education
  • Dafna Lemish, Professor and Dean, College of Mass Communication and Media Arts, Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, author of Children and Media: A Global Perspective
  • Kenneth Haller, Jr., M.D., SLUCare Pediatrician at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center; Associate Professor of Pediatrics, Saint Louis University

“This is a world where we have electronic media, they’re not going away,” Lemish said. “What we do need to do is find a balance between different forms of activities that we do with young children.”

This is a world where we have electronic media, they’re not going away. What we do need to do is find a balance between different forms of activities that we do with young children.

For example, she said that using an e-book instead of a printed paperback to engage with children is just fine—so long as the parents is helping the child interpret the book, ask questions about it, pointing out particulars as they would with a normal book.

“The most important thing is the interaction,” Lemish continued. “Using electronic media passively, putting the baby in front of the screen and going to do the laundry is not such a good strategy. If you are using it to interact with the baby, whether it is going to the museum to look at the pictures or looking at animals in the street, it is another resource in the environment…one other resource in their holistic environment.”

In the end, media literacy comes down to establishing critical thinking in children and adults. Silverblatt recommended a “production approach” to start conversations: encouraging children to think about media with style questions about production such as “What music is used?” “What colors are being used?” “What point-of-view is the camera capturing?”

“Media literacy focuses on a process not a product; we’re telling people how to think, not what to think,” Silverblatt said.

Haller recommended that parents looking for advice on digital media consumption for their youngsters should look to the sites and “Media literacy, when it comes right down to it has a lot to do with common-sense parenting,” Haller said. “While a lot of media are new, it comes down to engaging with your kids about these things.”


At the crux of it, is time. Many people emailed and tweeted during the conversation to lament a lack of time and money to spend with their kids. Unfortunately, time could very well be the most important part of instilling media literacy in kids.

“Listening is so important, listening to what they’re taking in from the media,” Fyfe said. “Sometimes we just run right over children and guide them and direct them and put them through experiences and never take the time to hear what’s going on in their minds.”

“St. Louis on the Air” discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter and join the conversation at @STLonAir.