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Parents Should Support Children's Digital Literacy

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The transition is on. The movement through a digital and information revolution is increasing in both speed and volume, with our children leading the way. A new research reports from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center "Families Matter: Designing media for the digital age" demonstrates that it isn't enough to leave it up to schools to support our children's digtial media literacy. Parents, as they should, have a clear role to play in their children's effective and appropriate use of media and technology. But, where will they develop he skills and knowledge to do this?

"When it comes to digital media's influence on children, the study found that the more things change, the more they stay the same," said Dr. Michael H. Levine, Executive Director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center. "Kids need guidance to understand the critical skills and approaches to learning that are required in a ubiquitous media environment. It is essential that industry, researchers and policymakers understand that when it comes to promoting learning and positive social habits, families still matter most."

But, Dr. Levine has left out the education sector here. This is where teachers and educators role in sharing their knowledge of children's learning and developing resources and tools that support the parents of the children they teach is only growing in importance. There is a role, however big or small, for teachers to engage parents in the opportunity that digital media technology provides.

With my co-author, in Adproofing Your Kids, I wrote about the importance of managing screen time and facilitating children's understanding and use of new media technologies like the internet and gaming consoles. Digital media provides children with a whole new spectrum of opportunity, but only if we support children to recognize the value of these tools. And, tools is what these things are. Game consoles, apps, tablets, the internet, mobile devices are simply instruments through which we can use to support and invest in our children's learning and development. They will not necessarily do it by themselves, the technology in and of itself is not always educational, just because it is interactive does not mean it will support a child to learn. And, parents know this.
What the "Famlies Matter" report highlights is that parents are thinking and trying their best to navigate the space. The report identifies that:

Fifty-nine percent of parents believe that digital media prevent children from getting physical exercise, while 53 percent are concerned about their children's online safety and privacy. And 40 percent believe that mediated activities infringe on time that would otherwise be spent in face-to-face interactions.

Yet, we are also somewhat overprotective of our own children's experience because according to the report, "[o]nly18 percent of parents indicated that their own children spend too much time with technology."

This is where educators can step in. This is where the role of schools and teachers in supporting parents to navigate the complicated and often overwhelming space of digital media technology needs to be improved and strengthened. It is less important the amount of time children spend with technology and more important how children spend time with technology. Anyone interested in learning knows that it can take place anywhere and at anytime given the right circumstances, so how do we create the right circumstances for out children and young people both inside and outside of the classroom?

The report highlights that many parents are more likely to watch TV, playing boardgames and read books with their children than they are to browse the internet, watch YouTube clips or play games on their gaming consoles. Yet, this is where children are spending more and more of their time.

The report recommends that developers and tech companies need to design better user experiences that allow for children and adults to engage together. This is important. It has been happening for some time with the Nintendo Wii and now Microsoft Kinect trying to engage in the power and value of group engagement and play, with iPad games like Marble Mixer or Toca Tea Party for younger children. The phrase they use in the executive summary to describe this is: "Design the guilt out of digital-age parenting."

But, designing out guilt is not enough. Supporting children and their parents to understand where the learning value is in computing and mobile devices, to provide activities, to give permission to engage and explore and allow that parent-child relationship to contribute to a child's learning and development is also the responsibility of educators. I know it feels like another task in an overworked and undervalued profession, but isn't this type of engagement what the technology allows. Why aren't more parents using email or Skype to engage with teachers, to engage themselves in the classroom and their children's learning and homework? Teachers are the ones who understand how learning works and have studied how to plan, deliver and engage children in learning. As a parent myself, I am always keen to hear a teacher reflect on my role and how I can further support my children in ways equip them with the skills they need for later education and life.

The technological evolution is not a threat to teachers, it is another opportunity for teachers and schools to facilitate better relationships with families and helping them understand the role they play in their child's learning. We have to accept that the growth and development of a child doesn't all take place during school hours and the technology is now another tool in the education sector's arsenal in working with parents to create the capable and competent adults of the future.