Screen Time is Slate’s pop-up blog about children’s TV, everywhere kids see it.
Back when I could convince my parents to let me stay up late, I’d spend my extra waking hours watching Nick at Nite. There, in 2006, a 10-year-old could find reruns of old school hits like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Home Improvement. But once a week, sandwiched between the feel-good family values, was a half-hour anomaly: Nick News With Linda Ellerbee.
Nick News, which ran from 1992–2015, was styled like a nightly news program but made for elementary and middle schoolers. It was serious, and it took kids seriously. It was one of the first places I heard about climate change, when Al Gore spoke with Ellerbee about An Inconvenient Truth. It appears to be the first place future British royal Meghan Markle appeared on camera, at age 11, lambasting sexism in advertising. It covered debates over terrorism, children living with terminal illness, and the toll of physical abuse within families. “It wasn’t always necessarily the biggest ratings driver,” said Bronwen O’Keefe, who helped to produce Nick News and is now a senior VP at the network. “We weren’t going to dumb anything down for the audience and we weren’t going to avoid things that were controversial.”
The show was, at least to me, the Platonic ideal of a news program for kids. Now that it’s off the air, who’s filling the gap? Could they possibly respect their young audience the way Ellerbee respected hers?
In the case of Snapchat, not really.
According to marketing data, a remarkable 59 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds in the United States use the app every month. While they mostly send photos, Snapchat’s Discover portal allows them a lens on events in the outside world—at least in theory. Unfortunately, as Snapchat sees it, the world is mostly gossip, celebrities in various states of undress, and kittens. Some outlets, like the New York Times and the Washington Post, seem to worry over this questionable quality; the national papers have been notably tinkering with their Snapchat presence in search of a balance between visual stimulation, interactivity, and substance. But the last time I looked, the British tabloid the Daily Mail sat atop Discover.
Despite Snapchat’s low expectations for its users, kids still want to be taken seriously, said Jenny Coogan, the chief operating officer of Newsela, an online news platform used in classrooms around the country. Newsela uses software and human moderators to take the news of the day, tailor it for different grade levels, and distribute it to schools. While teachers pick the articles they use (acting as a filter Snapchat doesn’t have), the site’s user data proves kids want to grapple with serious stuff. Terrorism, gun violence, hate crimes—they all rise to the top. “Kids frequently already know about something,” Coogan said, “and this gives us a way to talk about it.”
Outside of school, kids with a nose for news often end up consuming content made with adults in mind. For precocious teens and preteens interested in current events but unlikely to sit down with a newspaper, Saturday Night Live often serves as a glimpse at our current political moment. Kids don’t even have to stay up late anymore to do it, thanks to Hulu. SNL’s often-low level of sophistication can be frustrating for adults, but for kids it still feels aspirational—slightly naughty jokes accompanying sketches that distill the complexity of politics into something more manageable. No kid will walk away from SNL with a detailed understanding of the new tax bill, but they’ll at least know it’s happening (and, most likely, have the general and correct impression that’s it’s awful).
For those older or nerdier kids with an appetite for the details SNL glosses over, satisfaction comes from the late-night politics explainer, a blossoming cable subgenre. An episode of John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, for example, feels like a highly produced AP class, just with swear words. Contentious topics, historical analogs, and primary source documents ripple across the screen. A curious teenager would have walked away from this year’s programming with a decent understanding of the Equifax security breach and the shortcomings of the National Flood Insurance Program. Unfortunately, the show is only really accessible to a select group of kids who have developed the broad knowledge and critical thinking skills necessary to engage with the show, which is expressly made for well-educated, politically savvy adults. Talk to an average high school sophomore who’s been mainlining John Oliver and you’ll hear a lot of borrowed jokes—and a child still struggling to fit her issue-based outrage into a broader political and cultural context.
Ultimately, kids’ best source for the news remains an adult who’s willing to talk with them about it. A decade or more ago, I remember watching the MSNBC news lineup with my parents after dinner, picking up whatever information I could. My fourth-grade class presidential vote for John Kerry was directly influenced by Keith Olbermann’s persuasive diatribes. But it was my parents—who gave me historical context for what I was hearing, talked me through thorny political dilemmas, and helped me see the value of understanding what was going on all over the world—who truly taught me how to be a thoughtful consumer of the news. Well, my parents, and Linda Ellerbee.