Move over Itsy Bitsy Spider. Here’s a nursery rhyme for the 21st century: “Sometimes with technology, balancing’s hard to do. … Too much of something can make you sad or blue.”
That ditty—popularized by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit which focuses on helping children use technology in safer and more meaningful ways—is meant to simplify a lesson that’s increasingly relevant for kids as young as two: Be careful about how much time you spend in the digital world and what you do while you’re there.
Talking to a preschooler about screentime limits, digital literacy, and cyber safety may seem a bit premature. But waiting until later in elementary school—or even middle or high school—puts children at a disadvantage, educators say.
“Can you imagine trying to teach a high schooler to brush their teeth for the first time?” asked Faith Rogow, an independent scholar and author of Media Literacy for Young Children: Teaching Beyond the Screen Time Debates, published this year. “It’s much harder to instill that habit later on. It’s possible, but it’s harder.”
By middle school, children who were given guidance on how to navigate digital spaces early on “are knowledgeable of dangers that are out there. They're not using their accounts to bully people. [They] don't have 10 social media accounts.”
The longer parents and teachers wait to help children safely explore the digital world, the more they will have to counter what the child has already learned from “people who don’t share your values, who may not have a kid’s best interest at heart,” such as social media companies, she added.
These days, most kids are getting exposure to digital spaces long before they learn to read. The overwhelming majority of children ages two to four—93 percent—spend at least some time on mobile media, according to a 2020 report by Common Sense Media, which has created lessons in digital citizenship for young children.
Device ownership can start even before most kids are toilet trained. Nine percent of children under age two have their own mobile device, according to the Common Sense report. That percentage increases as kids get older. Nearly half—46 percent—of children between ages two and four have their own mobile devices, typically a tablet, Common Sense found.
Once students get to 4th or 5th grade, it is easy to distinguish the kids who received early digital citizenship and literacy training from those who are experiencing the concepts for the first time, said Darshell Silva, a librarian and technology integration specialist at Nathanael Greene Middle School in Providence, R.I.
By middle school, children who were given guidance on how to navigate digital spaces early on “are knowledgeable of dangers that are out there,” Silva said. “They’re not using their accounts to bully people. [They] don’t have 10 social media accounts. They have one or two social media accounts. They don’t share any personal information. And they also don’t believe everything they read on the internet.”
Getting that background knowledge early is likely to become even more important now, as more schools provide kids in kindergarten, or even preschool, with a laptop or tablet to use in school and oftentimes at home too. Before the pandemic, less than half of educators reported that their elementary schools—42 percent—had 1-to-1 computing programs. That percentage soared to 84 percent by the spring of 2021, according to a survey conducted by the EdWeek Research Center.
Don’t stare at your screen and ignore those around you
Early digital literacy lessons don’t have to be complicated, Rogow said. In fact, they don’t even have to be digital. It’s possible to encourage kids to begin using their critical thinking skills early on, without ever picking up a device.
Parents or teachers can start by pointing out a piece of media, say a flier posted on a mailbox, and asking, “I wonder who made that?” That simple question will help little children begin to grasp the concept that someone created every piece of media they consume—it didn’t just appear out of nowhere. Eventually, children can begin considering how another person’s ideas and opinions may shape the messages they produce.
Putting healthy limits on screen time is also a big theme of early lessons, said Leticia Citizen, who works at Hawthorne Elementary School in Beverly Hills, Calif. She gets students thinking about those ideas as early as age four, during what is called “transitional kindergarten” in California.
Citizen often kicks off her lessons by asking students to name at least one fun online activity from the past week, and at least one equally enjoyable offline experience.
She’ll direct the youngsters to think about how some of the bright, fast-moving images in virtual spaces make them feel physically. Are their bodies restless after playing a game online for too long? Does it hurt their eyes? Or make their brains “go wonky and wiggly”?
And she emphasizes to the children to pay attention to what’s going on around them, in the physical world, over what’s happening in the virtual one. Inspired in part by a Common Sense lesson, “Pause for People,” Citizen has students think about what they might do if they are in the middle of a digital game, maybe even about to win, and a parent or sibling comes up to ask a question.
“We talk about like how sometimes you don’t even hear them because you’re like so engrossed in what you’re doing,” Citizen said. She’ll ask her students, “What are some things that we need to do [to] respect and honor them coming to talk to you and being responsive, and then we can go back and play our game?” And she asks them to name a time when they missed out on something fun—like playing outside with a friend—because they were too wrapped up in a digital game or television show.
She helps them understand why keeping devices on at night—considered bad sleep hygiene by child development experts—can be harmful. One of her favorite tools: A story about a family of rabbits kept awake by the sounds of various tablets and phones. (Spoiler alert: the mother bunny throws the devices out the window so everyone can get some shuteye.)
What to do when you find yourself in an unsafe space online
Online safety is part of the picture too. Most preschoolers and kindergarteners aren’t proficient readers, but they can still look at the pictures in online app stores. That means they’re bound to see ads that take them to digital products that might not be age appropriate.
Citizen shows students an online ad designed to appeal to children and asks how many of them would be drawn in by picture of, for instance, a cute elephant. Hands go up. Advertisers, she’ll explain, may catch their eyes with flashy images, but they want something in return, typically money.
Other strangers that students might encounter online may want access to private information, or to track down a kid in real life. Citizen tries to put that danger in terms young children can understand.
“We talk about how there are adults and some kids who don’t always make the best choices, and sometimes their goal is to try to hurt us,” Citizen said. They may ask for a child’s password, or want to know their name. She’s trained children not to give out any information—not even their favorite color—and to reach out to a parent or older sibling if they stumble on a corner of the internet that makes them feel unsafe or overwhelmed.
To be sure, it’s tough to tackle digital citizenship for the youngest children without parent outreach.
Part of that can just be about teaching caregivers how to use technology with their kids. For instance, some of Citizen’s youngest students play an online game, Roblox, which has a chat feature.
She helps the kids—and their parents—understand that they can use controls to disable the chat feature, and explains why it’s not a good idea to talk to strangers online, the same way it’s smart to be careful about unfamiliar people in the physical world. They can also agree on screen time limits and set timers that will go off when a child should stop using a device and move on to another activity.
Some school districts offer parents formal training in helping their children navigate the online world, including the Los Angeles Unified School District, which will offer a course in the subject in its newly created Parent Academy.
By the time they get to high school, ‘their digital footprint is crazy’
Children also need to understand that what they do online will leave a digital record that can be difficult to erase.
Silva has done Google searches on her name to show her students—and, with permission, repeated the exercise with a student. They’re often surprised to see how much information about them is already available on the internet.
This kind of training can come too late for some kids. “A lot of kids [go] to middle school” without the digital citizenship lessons “and then before they get to high school their digital footprint is crazy,” Silva said.
Cyberbullying is another focus of digital citizenship lessons later in elementary and middle school. For the most part, children as young as four or five aren’t using their tablets for social media. Instead, they’re playing games, sometimes with other children they may or may not know in the real world.
That creates an opening to talk about how to treat others in a digital space.
“That’s new for kids to think about, that these are actually other people in the screen,” particularly if they are represented by avatars, said Kelly Mendoza, the vice-president of educational programs for Common Sense Media. When it comes to things like kindness, taking turns, and being a gracious winner or loser, children need to understand that “behavior in the digital world needs to mirror our behavior in the in-person world.”