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Applied Media Literacy for Kids (Part 1)

September 23, 2015

I'm a photographer of sorts. I've been a semi-professional – from theater to travel to weddings. These days my photography is less formal. Like many of us, I pick up my phone to take pictures to capture a chance moment.

I firmly believe that the camera is a fabulous way to get kids involved with the world, and they can do so by using a piece of technology they have (almost constantly) at their fingertips.  As a father of a teenager and an ex-teenager, I have diligently enabled such activities by buying cameras, phones and data plans.

But I am also a longtime Senior Executive Producer at WGBH in Boston, producing apps and websites for WGBH in Boston that you may know from PBS. I and my team and have produce digital content for Curious George, Arthur, ZOOM, Between the Lions, Design Squad Nation, Plum Landing, Martha Speaks and PEEP. In the past year, we have launched two photographic apps to get kids outside and looking at nature.

And it's from this personal and professional vantage point that I've constructed a new project for kids to help them explore, safely navigate, and embrace the ups and downs of ubiquitous technology and 24:7 access to the world. There can be both in kids' everyday use, and it's our collective task to understand how kids use technology and to steer them towards the positive.

And so comes Ruff Ruffman: Humble Media Genius. You can find it here or get a fly-through in this video:


There is considerable thinking that goes into striking a balance here: we hope to provide a well-informed evangelism for technology. Photography is good example: kids are taking and sharing thousands of photographs, They're building up their social life, trying on personalities and reaching beyond their immediate family networks.

Instagram provides one such platform for outreach. "Sixth-graders will follow anyone," explained Sarah, a new addition to my high schooler's carpool. I was using my powers of invisibility - as a father driving girls to sports I have joined the ranks of the unseen - to eavesdrop on Sarah's description to her friends of her latest Instagram behavior. She follows local sixth-graders in order to have them follow her back. She proceeds to unfollow them as soon they have reciprocated. They won't notice, she suggests. In this way, her all-important numbers go up. Kids treat follows, views and likes as a yardstick against which they measure their social value; and so they'll happily follow, or be followed. And while "follow" doesn't have the same connotations as it might IRL (in real life), kids should know that their shared photos may also carry and publicly share their geo-location data.

And over the next few months, as I and my colleagues at WGBH expand this effort with new topics about privacy, security and social media, I'll blog about just what it takes to launch a kid-friendly, media literacy project into an unsuspecting world.

And if you're wondering how to parse that geo-location issue for young kids, while still encouraging them to take and share photographs, you could do worse than check out our animated short about taking photos:

Bill Shribman is an EMMY-winning producer who creates digital games, apps and animation for children at WGBH in Boston. Creator of a popular media literacy project, Ruff Ruffman: Humble Media Genius for PBS KIDS, he has also overseen digital work at WGBH on properties from ARTHUR to Curious George to ZOOM. His TED-X and TED-Ed videos can be found online. He is part of the extended family that is Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society and he also blogs at where he has written about Finland, poison, and food processors.