Are kids getting really stupid? A plan of action

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The Philadelphia Magazine cover story, “Is It Just Us, Or Are Kids Getting Really Stupid?” by Sandy Hingston piqued my interest at the supermarket check-out aisle.

Many educators, parents, and students are polarized about the impact digital and media technologies have on society. Some say technology and social media tools are making kids stupid, e.g. "ask a kid to tell you the time from an analog clock."

Others say, “information is power,” and promote spreading technology and media products throughout all socioeconomic levels. Dr. Renee Hobbs, a respected media literacy scholar and the founder of the Temple Media Education Lab, may just have a plan to make media and digital technologies essential for teaching and learning in the classroom and beyond.

Hobbs’ white paper Digital and Media Literacy: A Plan of Action addresses important competencies that may demonstrate that kids are not getting really stupid. Furthermore, the plan provides some concrete recommendations that can be enacted at home, in schools, and in the community at large.

Hingston’s feature was both provocative and alarming. The article questions if digital and media literacy tools that saturate young peoples’ brains are dumbing them down. However, as educators and parents we should be careful not to demonize social media and technology. The challenge for us is to find the balance between traditional and 21st century literacy skills to engage students.

Educational settings should adapt to the shifts that digital and media technologies are creating for teaching young people. Parents, educators, and scholars must therefore be willing to embrace the challenges and opportunities of preparing the next generation for the exponential growth and complex demands of a multi-mediated world. Instead of blaming cell phones, video games, and Facebook for corrupting youth, we need to find effective ways to harness these multi-modal and dynamic platforms to revolutionize teaching and learning.

Hobbs’ plan of action, presented at a roundtable hosted by The Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, focuses on implementing the Knight Commission’s 15 recommendations for creating healthy informed communities. The plan notes that pushing students in one direction over the other would not prepare them for the critical thinking skills required in democratically-globally networked society.

The plan takes into consideration that young people are “constantly plugged in," and "500 + TV channels, broadband Internet, mobile phones, a totally wired generation." The plan further recognizes that in order for young people to fully participate in contemporary society that they should not only consume media, but create and share their own media productions.

The plan notes that there is no “one size fits all” program or approach to addressing the digital and media literacy capacity of over 300 million citizens. However, it does provide suggested spaces in both formal and informal settings that can support these competencies. This includes programs at homes, K-12 schools, libraries, museums, summer and after school programs, local cable access centers, colleges, universities, and nonprofit centers. These spaces should be available to under-served and under-resourced communities.

To address if kids are getting really stupid requires us to broaden our thinking of what is literacy.

The plan broadens the concept of literacy by including a definition of digital and media literacy “that is a constellation of life skills that are necessary for full participation in our media saturated and information rich society.”

The plan focuses on helping all citizens not simply use digital tools, but use them well, through five major competencies:

  1. Helping young people make responsible choices and access information by locating, sharing, and comprehending complex ideas and concepts.
  2. Critically analyzing a variety of forms of “text” to determine the author’s purpose, point of view, and evaluations of the quality and credibility of content information.
  3. Create varied content using multiple forms, languages, images, sounds, and digital tools.
  4. Reflect on one’s own conduct and communication under the risk and rewards of digital and media citizenship.
  5. Participate in social action individually and collaboratively, and share that knowledge to help solve problems at home, in the workplace, and community at large.

I contend that kids are not getting really stupid and that digital and media literacy offers a bridge to engage students to show us how smart they really are.

Hobbs encourages teachers and parents to help young people discover the pleasures and complications of using digital and media literacy. She mentors many media educators and provided me guidance when I developed a curriculum unit “My Space in Democracy."

What’s your take? Are kids getting really stupid? How do you bring digital and media literacy into your classroom or home?

Want to learn more about media literacy? The National Association for Media Literacy Education is holding their annual conference in Philly this summer. The deadline for proposals is this Friday. We’ve submitted a proposal for a "Finding your blogger voice" session.