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What Are The Messages Children’s Books Convey About Media, Technologies, and Screens?

Maria José Botelho and Masha Kabakow Rudman (2009, p. 71) suggest, “Children’s literature is a product of culture as well as evidence of power relations; it is a social transcript of the relations of race, class, and gender.” In this post, I will consider the messages children’s picturebooks convey about the relationships between children and the media, technology, and screens they encounter in their worlds.

I wandered into this exploratory research because I was looking for a way to approach conversations with my own children about the ways algorithms work in their lives. In my last post, I shared three books that I utilized to help broaden and expand my 11, 9, and 5 year old children’s understandings of what media is. This post will focus more on the messaging we received after reading several picturebooks (I’ll address the longer form texts in another post, later).

I must interject this caveat, though, before I tell you what we discovered: I crowdsourced two different requests for titles that contained “technology, screens, and/or media as a key element of the plot from the past 10-15 years.” The first was posted to a private group of parents/academics on Facebook and the second was posted to the ALSC Listserv, librarians. In this way, the titles I examined with my children in no way constitute a representative sample of the universe of possibilities. They are, rather, a potentially biased sample of titles that were shared by a privileged group of educated people who happen to know literature fairly well. In acknowledging this potential bias, I also point that the results likely reflect the values and social norms this group of people, which may have been adopted from the news media.

My crowdsourcing yielded 48 titles published by 41 different author or author/illustrator teams. Many of these have been added to a list I’ve started titled “media mentors.” Twenty-three of the titles my networks suggested were picturebooks.

If we know that these are all books with messaging about screens, technology, and media, a quick look through the submitted book titles and their summaries demonstrated these values: Rocket Says Look Up, You’re Missing It, and Doug Unplugged all tell the reader that there is value in pulling away from the screen. This message often comes from the kids in these narratives, but the kids also act to unplug siblings, parents, and even themselves so that they can observe the world around them. Eighteen titles clearly presented screens as the obstacle to be overcome and illustrated diverse approaches to ridding the child from the screen.

I include here two detailed examples of this. In the first, On a Magical Do-Nothing Day, we see a young girl who has been playing a video game while her mother works at a cabin in the woods. The mother becomes upset and asks the child, “Is this going to be another day of doing nothing?” and then proceeds to take the video game from the child who, in turn, retrieves the device from the mother’s hiding place, gets on a jacket and goes outside (intending to play more video games). While exploring outside, though, the child drops the device into the river and it is rendered useless. The child then has a glorious day exploring nature.

Two page spread from Beatrice Alemagna’s “On a Magical Do-Nothing Day” (2016, published by Harper Collins)

In this example, we see a mother restricting her child’s access to the device so that her child will do something else, despite the child’s strong desire to do exactly nothing else. Note the context: the mother is also on a screen, and has been for quite some time and the child is, we assume, lonely. She says, “I wish Dad were here.” In doing so, the child implies that her Dad would be more likely to engage in playing with her. All children seek human connection. The mother was not able at the time to give it to the child (because she had a writing deadline) and probably resented the fact that she could not engage with the child. The use of the word “growled” suggests an angered emotional stance. The mother may not have understood that the child probably resorted to video games as a means to remain in close proximity to her mother without disturbing her work. The child’s time on screens preoccupied the mother.

In the second example, we see a family taking a road trip out west. The adolescent daughter, Jane, is sad to leave her friends for the summer and is texting with them while the family makes the trip. Unlike the mother in On a Magical Do-Nothing Day, Jane’s parents do not physically take Jane’s device away. As a matter of fact, they allow her to use their phone while in transit in the car (presumably because Jane’s iPad does not have WiFi service). Jane chooses to use a device in the car, in a canoe at the Everglades, and at their campsite at Big Bend. Several times, her parents nudge her, “Jane, put that away. Come…” Jane eventually chooses to oblige them and comes to enjoy herself as the family explores the national parks. She pretends with her brother and even loses track of her device in the process. When she wants to send a message to her friends to let them know she’s returning, she relies on snail mail–a postcard.

Two page spread from Laura Bush and Jenna Bush Hager’s “Our Great Big Backyard” (2016, published by Harper).

Here, we see the child’s need for human connection to same age peers. Jane’s parents might tacitly recognize their daughter’s need to feel connected, or they may be less affected by the screentime narrative. Their approach to managing screentime was not as restrictive or emotional as what we observed in the previous example. They allow Jane to decide on her own to put down the device. Unlike the mother in the previous example who was illustrated with a furrowed brow, the parents here are not angered. They are happily permissive of the screen time, but encourage Jane to engage with them. They invite her to observe what they are observing, to be connected with them.

Fewer (n=5) titles position screens, technology, and media as a problem to be overcome. I’ll pick these up in my next post, but, in the meanwhile I’d like to encourage you to reflect on your feelings about screens in your child’s life and your responses to these. Both the detailed examples I shared today illustrated times with “screens on” and very different parental responses to the child who was positioned with the screens. When do the children in your lives have “screens on”? Where are the human connections your child might be seeking while on screens? How do you respond when you feel like your child ought to be doing something other than screens? Do you restrict? Do you nudge and allow the child to come to their own stopping point? What are the contexts in which you feel anger about screens in your child’s life?

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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