When I talk to people about what I do (help companies build better digital products for kids), I get different reactions. Those that understand the importance of user centered design, think my work is interesting and important. Those that aren’t familiar with the field think it’s interesting, too. But they don’t really thinks it’s important. Why? Because they believe that kids should play outside, instead of hanging on the couch with an iPad all day.
Here is the thing. They are right. Kids shouldn’t hang on the couch with an iPad all day. They should play outside. But this doesn’t make it any less important to provide them with valuable digital products as well.
Media isn’t going anywhere
Media has been around a long time. And so has our fear that it can do harm to children. Back when printed books became available for the masses, parents feared their children would become isolated and socially underdeveloped bookworms. Today, parents couldn’t be any happier than when they see their kids read one of these good old paper books.
The media of our times are digital, interactive, and connected to the internet. So what? Until they are being replaced by something even more advanced, we have to deal with them. And while we do so, why don’t we make the best of it? Why not embrace media for what it can be: convenient, fun, entertaining, educational, creative, and much more.
Even if we tried to keep kids away from contemporary media, we wouldn’t be very successful. Media is everywhere and just like everything else in life, kids rely on us to help them understand and use it.
Here are 4 reasons why we should encourage kids to engage with digital media:
1. Kids need to learn how to use media
It’s kind of contradictory. On the one hand, a lot of people want to keep their children away from media. On the other hand, our society talks about ‘digital natives’ that ‘speak a digital language of computers, videogames and the Internet.’ Children are already expected to be familiar with anything digital. And they will be even more so as they grow older.
My nephew was 8 years old when his teacher asked them to research their favorite animal on Google for homework. She expected a profile on the animal including a picture in a digital format. The problem: She had never explained how Google works, how to find images, or how to download them. Let alone had she explained which program to use for setting up the profile.
It is important to prepare children for the challenges they will face in life. Media will undoubtedly be a huge challenge.
2. Kids need to learn media literacy
Once kids know how to use media, it is just as important that they are media literate. What does that mean? Basically, it means that children are informed and confident enough to carefully evaluate any information they find online.
For example, when children use google, they need to beware of the fact that anyone can place anything online, even themselves. Children need to learn to identify trustworthy sources and on the contrary ignore unreliable ones. They also need to understand how the WWW works and how information is organized in order to participate in content creation themselves.
Only if kids are well informed, they will be able to handle their personal information with care. They will develop the competence to analyze and evaluate content. They will be confident to affront dangers, and stay true to themselves.
3. Kids need to develop a healthy relationship with media
Media can be addictive. We know how it goes. I even deleted the Facebook app from my phone because I spent way too much time checking it for news. A healthy level of media use is challenging almost impossible with a huge deal of self-control.
That might be one of the reasons why many adults don’t want their kids to get in contact with media at a young age. They fear that their kids lack the self-control they need to resist the addiction.
However, we also know that forbidding something only makes it more attractive. The effect: Kids will engage even more with media if they get the chance to do so. Not because they prefer it over all other activities, but because they can.
Especially at young ages, kids want to run around, they want to go outside, they enjoy playing with their physical toys. There is no reason to fear they will lock themselves up in their room, playing computer games for the rest of their lives.
By introducing them to media at an early age, and being a responsible media-role model, you take away the wow-factor of media that often makes it so appealing to kids.
4. Media does not always mean entertainment
The fact that children grow up with digital media doesn’t implicate they know all about its capabilities. Sure, a lot of times, media is fun and entertaining, which also makes it very attractive. But at the same time, media can be used for so many more things.
It is important that we teach children how they can use media for efficiency and for work. Obviously, kids don’t necessarily need to boost their productivity, but they do need to understand the concept of it. It is important that they see computers also as a work tool, smart phones as phones or agenda, and the Internet as a place with lots of serious information.
A better understanding of the things they can do with media will put things into perspective. And again, being a good media-role model is important.
5. Good media can be good for the development
Last but not least, media can be good for the development. For example, well developed and age appropriated apps can help children learn in a fun and engaging way.
The four year old daughter of a friend of mine already knows how to spell her name after practicing letters on the iPad. This is not an exception. There are apps available for all different kind of skills and ages.
Key to a positive media experience for children is a careful supervision and restriction of both the content and the amount of media consumption. Also, it is important that we design and build media for children that is (1) easy to learn and easy to use and (2) that supports children in their development.