Children should learn about the influence that media can have on people’s lives as soon as they start school in order to minimise any harmful impact it can have on their development, according to University of South Australia education researcher Dr Lesley-Anne Ey.
However, Ey found that media literacy, which involves learning about the role of media in society and gaining the essential skills of inquiry and self-expression, is virtually missing from the primary school curriculum in both Australia and the United States. And despite young children being enthusiastic consumers of media, the topic is only offered in upper primary.
“Media is more prevalent in our lives than ever before – we are surrounded by it and the ease of access to it is unprecedented, regardless of age, and much of the media consumed through the internet is unable to be controlled,” Ey said.
“It has a significant influence on children’s and young people’s attitudes and behaviours, shaping their understanding about gender ideals and identity development.”
Starting at age five
According to Ey, despite the negative outcomes of consuming sexualised media – which includes self-objectification, female sexualisation and acceptance of sexual and gender violence – not enough has been done to change how children get education and support with regards to understanding media’s influence on their identities.
“From the age of five, children are far less interested in children’s bands like The Wiggles and far more likely to listen to pop music which often contains sexually explicit lyrics and images,” she said.
“The latest research suggests 57% of pop songs contain some form of sexual reference so it is vital that we teach our kids how to navigate this type of content safely.”
The paper Popular Music Media Literacy: Recommendations for the Education Curriculum advocated for the inclusion of media literacy in the school curriculum. But Ey said it should go beyond that, believing media literacy needs be taught to children as soon as they enter formal education.
“This can be done in an age-appropriate way – explaining the concept of stage personas, teaching children the difference between reality and fantasy, and engaging them to think critically about what they are listening to or watching,” she said.
“The Australian curriculum is effective in teaching children how to create and analyse digital media but lessons on how the media influences personal development start far too late.”
Beyond the classroom
According to Ey, though included in the curriculum, media literacy is often left up to the teacher’s discretion on when and how it is taught. It’s an untested subject, unlike the traditional ones such as science, mathematics, and reading and writing.
Media literacy, in an already packed curriculum that puts teachers under immense pressure, can “easily fall through the cracks.”
Additionally, Ey said that education about media needs to go beyond the classroom and should also involve parents so they can have right conversations with their children.
“Media codes and regulations should be informed by child development experts and be adapted to take into account how media is consumed by children,” she said.
“Media literacy has a place on the public agenda – it’s education that we all need.”