Parents are consuming a mountain of information from multiple media platforms as they follow news about COVID-19, protests following the death of George Floyd, the upcoming presidential election and more. Like adults, kids also have a lot of information to sift through and a lot of sources to evaluate.
That’s why media and news literacy is critical for young people whose exposure to “fake news,” political satire and scary content is greater than ever. According to Common Sense Media’s ongoing research, a vast majority of kids today feel scared and depressed about the news.
So how can we help them? It starts with asking questions and encouraging kids to question what they see and hear — training them to think critically about information. With strong media-literacy skills, they’ll be informed, engaged and less likely to be duped.
“The news isn’t what it used to be. What was once shared by newspapers, radio and TV now comes in Snapchat stories, on Facebook Live broadcasts, in Twitter conversations and through other new forms of communication,” says Michael Robb, director of research for Common Sense. “To an extent, that means kids must understand what’s happening in the world and apply critical-thinking skills to information in all its forms and from all sources.”
Common Sense Media is one of the only organizations to conduct large-scale studies of how young people get their news, engage with it and feel about it. Some key findings released in April found that many teens look to social media personalities, influencers and celebrities for news. The most commonly mentioned personalities teens say they trust are Swedish YouTuber PewDiePie, The Daily Show host Trevor Noah, President Donald Trump and pop star Beyoncé. CNN, YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat are top news sources for kids.
“My kids enjoy watching the news and have many questions, but they honestly take it all as true,” says Katey McPherson, whose daughters — ages 11, 12 and 13 — attend school in Chandler. “From social media memes on Tik Tok about us going to WWIII to immigration policy and school shootings, their general impression is that it’s all bad news. I don’t hear them speak of anyone at school helping them to decipher the difference, and in general, they are worried about what they see and hear.”
Local realtor Dianne Keck’s son is 7, so his exposure to the news is “extremely minimal, by design,” she says. “I think that is more common these days, because many people are ‘cutting the cord,’ so-to-speak, with cable TV. Instead, they have Netflix and other streaming services, so they have a high level of control over what content their kids are exposed to.” Keck says she and her son don’t spend time in places or with people who leave television news on around children.
“In first grade, children do not have enough life experience or social context in which to evaluate news they are hearing, so our primary goal in raising informed citizens is to educate them on science, history and culture so they have broad context to draw upon when they eventually start consuming news,” Keck says.
Jarrett Ransom, president and CEO of The Rayvan Group, says her 9-year-old son, a student at Great Hearts Academies, understands what news is and can be skeptical of things like click bait, but she acknowledges he really doesn’t know which sources are better than others. “If he hears it or sees it, he often believes it,” she says.
When asked if her tween and teen understood and valued the news, Scottsdale mom Jodi Low asked them. She got this reply: “It helps me understand what’s going on in the world, but I wouldn’t say I ‘value’ it,” said her 14-year-old daughter. Her 12-year-old had a completely different opinion: “I don’t really like it or understand it, and it’s scary sometimes.”
Low’s children say they get their news primarily from Instagram and other social media platforms, from kids at school or on the radio on the way to school. Some of the news is filtered through mom.
“I want my children to be aware of what’s going on in the world and to be cautious of what and whom they listen to, and to know that not all the news that [is] reported is indeed true,” says Low, founder and CEO of U & Improved, a Scottsdale-based leadership development and training company. Both of Low’s girls say the news can negatively affect their moods, making them sadder or more scared rather than depressed, but neither of them said they could spot fake news or really know what media is considered credible or trustworthy.
That’s why teaching media literacy skills to evaluate where information comes is an important life skill.
“I can see this generation as a whole constantly wondering what’s true or not and that the undercurrent of the world seems generally negative,” says McPherson. “It’s always in the back of their minds.”
12 ways to help kids become critical thinkers and smart consumers of information
Kids hear about the news at home, at school and in communities they’re a part of. Explain that “word-of-mouth” stories and rumors aren’t always true. Playing an old-school game of “Telephone” illustrates how information can get twisted along the way.
Make sure kids know the difference between fact and opinion. If they’re older, talk about objective vs. subjective information and bias. Ask them for examples of indisputable facts and colorful opinions.
Explain the difference between credible news organizations that follow specific professional standards and other types of publishers.
Talk about the different kinds of news sources: investigative journalism, research studies, opinion pieces, blogs, punditry, evening news and so on.
Watch out for viral videos. Videos that circulate around the internet may or may not contain nuggets of real news, but they rarely represent the whole situation. And, like photos, videos can be doctored and edited to bend the truth.
Teach kids to avoid sharing, forwarding or commenting on stories until they’ve verified that the stories are true.
Talking about a real-life situation can help little kids understand the idea that different people have different points of view.
Older kids already understand the concept of perspective, but might need help transferring the idea to the news. Ask them to consider how different audiences (by gender, race, and culture) might interpret a story.
Walk kids through the questions they can ask to test a source’s validity: Who made this? Why did they make it? Is it for or against something or someone? Are they trying to get a big reaction from me or just inform me? How can I tell? Is anyone else reporting this news?
Look for signs that the source is legit and not fake, such as a clear “About Us” section and a standard URL (for example, “.com” instead of “.com.co”).
Remind kids that it’s hard to have all the facts all at once. Even respected news outlets make mistakes or jump the gun. It’s smart to wait to make up your mind about something until you have more information.
Model a wise approach to news by using media-literacy skills yourself. Show kids how you check other sources and ask questions.