In this post, Bill Shribman describes his work in media literacy with the popular Ruff Ruffman: Humble Media Genius project and a parallel curriculum developed by Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society. He argues that although the parenting of children varies greatly, they still need to know the key issues raised by being online. Bill is a Senior Executive Producer and also the Director of Digital Partnerships at WGBH in Boston. He is a producer of apps, websites, and augmented reality for many signature broadcast brands including Arthur, and Curious George. [All images credit of: WGBH]

There are many terrific resources to support media literacy. However, few seem to be aimed directly at children in unmediated informal settings, where they can typically be reached in much higher numbers than at school. While classroom learning offers a wonderful opportunity to look at media and media literacy, the Ruff Ruffman: Humble Media Genius project takes the form of animated short videos that create content for more informal use. Over the past few years, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Google’s Public Policy team and others, I have been able to develop Ruff Ruffman, a free, media literacy project for children aged 6–11, designed to help children and their caregivers navigate the privacy implications of this technology-saturated world. Videos are shared via PBS KIDS (US-based) and additional video platforms like YouTube, to reach an international audience.

When I began the project, I wanted it to be contemporary. New technology and new behaviours mean that old-school media literacy needs to be recalibrated. With a rapid adoption of mobile technologies and personal screens replacing the shared computer, I sensed completely new issues in play. A friend’s 13-year-old daughter, for example, had tagged an Instagram selfie with ‘I’m home’, unaware that the software had also provided a geotag, drop-pin and map of her house that was visible to anyone online. Her mother, who worked in tech, had no idea her daughter’s account was public or who her daughter’s followers were.

Pre-teen girls collect ‘likes’ and followers on their social feeds as if they were a currency or badge of honour, and so there are incentives to the over-sharing of information. But the answer to over-sharing is not to stop sharing – my project aims to promote informed media use. I’m not a believer in the idea that today’s children are ‘digital natives’ – they don’t come with an innate understanding of technology or online services, and need help and guidance navigating the digital world.

An overview of the project

The project produces videos intended for children to watch by themselves as they might any other fun, cartoon content. The cartoons are ‘hosted’ by an animated dog, and the videos, under the title ‘Ruff Ruffman: Humble Media Genius’, have now been streamed across video platforms over 100 million times. Additional supporting resources for parents can be found at PBSKids.org, and for teachers at PBS LearningMedia.

The Humble Media Genius project now includes nearly 30 animated videos – plus quizzes, polls and more — covering the ins and outs of texting, photo sharing, searching, screen time, advertising and green tech (how to be environmentally conscious with technology), covering topics such as screen time, mitigating risky behaviour, and the recent, wider discussions about mobile technology. Working with the Connecticut Department of Transportation’s Highway Safety Office, we also developed an innovative project to reduce distracted driving accidents by getting children to nag their parents to hang up and drive.

Managing privacy

For the Ruff Ruffman project, our team supported the development of an internet curriculum developed by Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society. Having built a tremendous body of research, they distilled it into what is now their seminal Born digital book, recently updated and republished. Their Youth and Media group had already been developing media literacy resources for middle school and high school children, and so we worked to produce guidelines for younger children, such as avoiding classroom discussions about sexting.

One of the privacy-themed animations, written by EMMY-winning writer Gentry Menzel, shows Ruff’s actions being scrutinised in a game show format by his demanding grandmother. Has Ruff kept his information private? Is he sharing passwords? Is he being mean? (I’ll offer no spoilers here; the videos are available online in both English and Spanish.) An online quiz is also available to reinforce key tips such as: What do you do if you get a text from someone you don’t know? Or, how can you stay safe when using a shared computer at the library?

Parents’ roles

I’ve met many parents who think they can keep tabs on their children with tracking software. Others have no idea what their children are doing. Guiding children around privacy issues and what is appropriate to share is a muddy area where each parent must forge their own path. Parenting typically involves some form of passing on wisdom, but with technology, we often don’t have enough relevant experience to pass along, and our children may be using completely different software to us and with very different social norms. But whether or not as parents we allow our children to have social accounts for messaging, they must grow a general understanding of what their privacy means.

As we click swiftly past the terms of service links, we allow companies to tag our images, follow our purchases, and share or sell our data – and in doing so, allow almost everything we do or say online to be tracked by someone.

While it’s not for me to direct parents about how to raise their children in a digital world, I hope these free resources allow those of us working with parents, teachers or other digital first responders to explore some of the many hidden issues that children should know about being online, as they cannot realistically navigate these choppy waters without support.

The Ruff Ruffman Humble Media Genius project is available through PBS KIDS’ many video channels that include their very popular video streaming app, Roku, AppleTV, FireTV, AndroidTV and Chromecast. For those outside of the US, they are available on YouTube.

This post gives the views of the authors and does not represent the position of the LSE Parenting for a Digital Future blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.