Think preschool is too young to start teaching kids about digital citizenship? Consider this: Almost half of children have their own mobile device before they even set foot in a kindergarten classroom, according to a 2020 survey by the nonprofit Common Sense Media, which focuses on helping children use technology in safer and more meaningful ways.
“I think it’s really important, in particular, to address media balance at younger ages so that kids are set up with those habits early to take into the older grades,” said Kelly Mendoza, the vice-president of educational programs for Common Sense Media, which has created resources to introduce young children to digital literacy skills.
Here are three tips for teaching children in preschool and elementary school how to responsibly navigate digital spaces:
1. Talk to kids about the impact of too much screen time
Help young children understand that if they spend hours playing digital games or looking at videos online, they’ll lose out on fun things happening in the real world. Teachers can ask youngsters to talk about something they missed because they were too engrossed in their device. And they can help students reflect on how they feel physically after a lot of time online. Is their brain fuzzy? Does their head hurt? What about their eyes? Are they more antsy than usual?
Educators can also explain that if a parent, teacher, or friend wants to talk to them while they’re doing something online, they should pause, turn away from the device, and toward the real-life person. And teachers and parents can literally show them how to do that by simulating it.
The best thing adults can do? Put down their own phone. Students are watching how teachers and parents handle tech balance. So you have to practice what you preach.
2. Safety should be part of the conversation, but it doesn’t have to be scary
Children should understand that there’s usually a real person behind the chat messages and avatars they see in online spaces. They have to be careful in the digital world, just like they are in the real one. That means no sharing information—not even a favorite color—and definitely no giving out passwords. If kids find themselves in an unfamiliar or strange-looking corner of the internet, they should tell a parent or teacher.
Children need to hear that “some people don’t have their best interests at heart,” said Faith Rogow, an independent scholar and author of Media Literacy for Young Children: Teaching Beyond the Screen Time Debates, published this year. “If someone says something to them [online] that makes them upset or uncomfortable, they need to know that they have adults they can come to talk to about that.”
3. You don’t need digital tools to begin teaching digital literacy
It’s never too early to help children start thinking about the fact that there’s a person—with a viewpoint—behind every piece of print or online content they see. That can be done informally, Rogow said. For instance, when the class is walking down the hall, or in the neighborhood surrounding the school, point out a flyer and ask: “I wonder who made that?”
Most preschool and early elementary school teachers ask predictive questions before they read a book aloud in class, often by sharing the cover and asking kids to guess what the story is going to be about. It only takes one extra question to begin imparting a key skill kids will need on and offline, something along the lines of “can you tell me why you think that?’ or “how do you know?” Rogow said. Younger students will often respond with something “completely off the wall” but that doesn’t matter because “what it does is begin to get them in the habit of, ‘oh, I’m expected to give evidence for my answers.’”
And that expectation will get them started on the path to looking for the right evidence when they are trying to determine if an online source or statement is credible. Preschool and elementary school are not too early to begin building that skill.