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The Kids Who Are Portrayed With Screens

Before the COVID-19 orders for shelter in place and emergency schooling started, I was working on a series of posts using children’s literature as a launching pad for media mentorship. In part one I presented the idea that children’s books can offer key approach points for teaching about and discussing the ways screens, media, and technologies function in our lives. Books can broaden children’s knowledge of key terms and concepts related to media literacy and they can provide content to ground shared conversations about the roles of technologies, screens, and media in our lives.  In part two I shared my method for examining this topic as well as a preliminary finding about the messages I observed about and for children with screens, technologies, and media within the majority of the books I analyzed-that screens function as the obstacle to be overcome. In post three I offered readers a window into an alternative message—that screens can be helpful and support children and their grownups to realize goals they have, and that these tools can function as connective paths between people in places far away.

Before the pandemic hit, my plan in this line of work was to next present the children I observed in these narratives. I’ll still do that, but I must state that if these stories were translated into present day contexts a more significant portion of the child characters in the pages of these stories would probably have screens. Everyone I know across the world has received a message from their device in the past 25+ days that reads something along the lines of: “Your screen time was up 125% last week.” One only need read the headlines in The New York Times and in op-ed and blog pieces published from industry professionals to arrive at the conclusion that a significant shift has occurred in the way society writ large perceives its relationship with screens, media, and technology—in short, context matters!

All things considered, the analysis I present below is based on books published pre-pandemic. I anticipate that the ways the people of the world adjust to our new reality as well as the length of the restrictions on travel/school/work may prove to change what we see in the books that children encounter over the next decade…only time will tell. Our context today is an important one to consider as we navigate screens, but there are other factors that ought to weigh in as we consider how screens, technology, and media, fit into our lives.

In her seminal text, Screen Time, Lisa Guernsey (2012) proposed that researchers, caregivers, policies, educators, media creators, and news media ought to consider all of the “three Cs” of screen time—the individual child, the content the child is interacting with, and the context for using a screen—when engaging in discussion about screen time. Using a metric like the number of minutes a child has a device in their hands as the determinant for acceptable or unacceptable use neglects to consider the who (the individual child) the why (the context) and the what (the content) of screen time.

Today I present the children we see in the books I’ve analyzed. Here I analyzed first whether the character using a screen was human or nonhuman. For those that were human I also coded for age, socio-economic status, gender, race/ethnicity, and ability when evidence from the text allowed such analysis. In the full peer-reviewed journal article I’ll write I’ll provide a rationale for my coding categories, but similar approaches have been applied in content analyses of children’s picturebooks (see, e.g., Koss, 2015; Koss, Johnson, & Martinez, 2018).

In the gallery below are all of the character profiles of the human children (n=12) that are engaging with screens in this sample of picturebooks. The captions in the gallery share the character names (when available) and the titles in which the characters appear. Other books that portrayed animals (n=6), toys, or robots (n=2) as main characters are omitted from the results that follow. Also omitted are titles (n=2) that portray adults, rather than children, as the ones with the screens.

One additional title, When Grandma Gives You a Lemon Tree contains an unnamed female main character, but she never actually uses a screen, technology, or media. The other neighborhood children do use a range of devices and technologies, but the main character is simply portrayed in the beginning with a birthday wish list full of high tech items. She never receives any item on her list. Later in the narrative she is portrayed in a big box store pausing in front of the electronics, but she moves on to go to the garden center to purchase more plants for her garden.

In the list of human characters above (n=12) from eleven of the 23 picture book titles academics and librarians recommended for this research, five are unnamed. More female than male characters are named. Four of the characters are racially/ethnically diverse (Jamal, Zuri, the Moroccan boy from Mirror, and Little Roja). Two children, both female, wear glasses. There are no other characters with any other physical, cognitive, social, or emotional difference portrayed in these titles. Four children hail from urban contexts whereas the other characters come from suburban or rural contexts. It was difficult to draw a conclusion about SES, but most of the characters come from privilege: they have shelter, food, and enough income to afford a device for a child—oftentimes multiple devices for a family.

In reflecting on the children that are presented in this set of books, several things are obvious:

  • The problem of screens and technology is largely one that belongs to the wealthy and White.
  • It is less desirable for a female protagonist to be using a screen than for a male character.
  • Only the diverse characters are given a screen with a potentially positive connotation (i.e., 75% of the racially/ethnically diverse characters have a screen for a good reason such as learning to do hair, protecting oneself on a dangerous journey, or as the reward for hard work. Jamal from Rocket Says Looks Up! is the non-example and he functions as the antagonist.).
  • Other than the children who need glasses, we do not encounter any other children with any disability using a screen.

All of the above are problematic because books assist children in internalizing and learning norms and values about the world in which they live through overt or covert messages. They function “… as a major socializing agent. [They tell] students who and what their society and culture values, what kind of behaviors are acceptable and appropriate, and what it means to be a decent human being” (Bishop, 1990, p. 561). The children in this sample of literature are not representative of the full range of children today. It seems that even before the pandemic a broader range of children (across categories of ability, race/ethnicity, SES, and gender) were using screens than what we have here. Today it certainly feels like all the children are using screens….

In my next post I plan to analyze the content that is presented in these titles. What are children doing on the screens and devices we see in these titles?


Bishop, R. S. (1990b). Walk tall in the world: African American literature for today’s children. Journal of Negro Education, 59(4), 556-565. https://doi.org/10.2307/2295312

Guernsey, L. (2012). Screen time: How electronic media—from baby videos to educational software—affects your young child. Philadelphia, PA: Basic Books.

Koss, M., Johnson, N., & Martinez, M. (2018). Mapping the diversity in Caldecott books from 1938 to 2017: The changing topography. Journal of Children’s Literature, 44(1), 4-20.

Koss, M. (2015). Diversity in contemporary picturebooks: A content analysis. Journal of Children’s Literature, 41(1), 32-42.

For a list of children’s literature referenced in this post and elsewhere in my writing, please see my Media Mentors list on Goodreads.com.

About the author

Katie Paciga

Katie A. Paciga, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Education at Columbia College Chicago. She studies early language and literacy development and children's media.

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