How To Help Teens Make Sense Of The News

Older kids and teens need to hone their skills to process what's in their feed ― and sniff out fake news.
Kids are increasingly skeptical of what they see in the news and on social media.
Kids are increasingly skeptical of what they see in the news and on social media.

The news coming out of Washington, D.C. has been overwhelming. Kids and teens with access to social media and who watch the news are inevitably seeing broadcasts, images, videos and posts that are a lot to unpack. As parents, we can draw the tragic conclusion from the rioters’ violent actions that media literacy is a crucial life skill. Right now, five people are dead, because a mob of grown-ups acted on disinformation.

When stories like this break, we need to make sure our kids can unpack what’s coming at them, both to help them cope with the disturbing news and to discern between verified facts, manipulative half-truths and total fabrications.

People often assume the biggest lesson kids and teens need to learn is to be less gullible, but that’s the opposite of what Dimitri Pavlounis sees in his media-literacy workshops. The News Literacy Project Manager for CIVIX, a charitable and non-partisan organization that helps young Canadians become engaged citizens, told HuffPost Canada:

“We’re finding young people are already skeptical ― both for valid and invalid reasons. They know there is this problem with misinformation online, so getting them to understand there are people who dedicate their lives to serving the public interest and providing us with credible information is one of our big goals.”

In light of the insurrection, we asked Pavlounis ― as well as HuffPost Canada’s News Managing Editor Andrew Yates and his news-savvy 12-year-old daughter, Penelope Yates-Meneses ― how to help kids and teens make sense of violent and upsetting news stories. Here’s their advice:

“Just tell them what’s happening. Don’t sugarcoat it.”

- Penelope Yates-Meneses

Actively watch or read the news with your kids.

Yates often watches the news with his children: “My kids don’t get a lot of personal screen time, and my oldest has learned a hack that if she watches the news with me, she can eke out some extra screen time,” he said. Penelope was understandably shocked by what she saw on Wednesday. “I didn’t understand how anyone could do things like that. Riots and tearing up the Capitol is a whole new level of insane,” she said.

While Yates and his daughters are watching the news together, they chat. “We talk about who is saying something and what their motivation might be to say that,” he explained. “Based on what we know about that person, do we think they might have a reason to tell a lie, tell a half-truth, or talk about something out of context?”

Explain things honestly, but in age-appropriate ways.

Penelope recommended being upfront with your children about big news stories, since they’re likely to hear about them anyway and have to cope with them. “Just tell them what’s happening. Don’t sugarcoat it. It will make them feel not very smart, if they already kind of get it,” she explained. “It doesn’t help them to try to make them live in a bubble ― these things suck, but it’s reality.”

Her dad suggested asking them their opinions, to help them engage with stories, and answering even the toughest questions. “Don’t duck them, or give ‘soft’ answers,” he said, with the caveat: “I say this in the context of my 12-year-old. And I think it would more or less be the same for my nine-year-old, but I understand the level of transparency and hard reality may vary with age.”

“The news can send kids spiralling, especially when it involves violence and hate.”

Talk with them about what defines journalism.

“I don’t really trust what I see on social media, because it’s not very reliable,” said Penelope, who starts her day watching CBC, because “it seems to be the truth.” Pavlounis has found that many young people are unsure who and what they can trust when it comes to current affairs.

“It’s really about instilling in them an understanding of what journalism is, what journalistic values are, that journalists follow a process and have a code of ethics,” explained Pavlounis. “It’s also important to explain to kids that, regardless of where you are on the political spectrum, you can find journalists who adhere to those conventions.”

You should also discuss with kids and teens how legacy media, like Fox News, can still be problematic, cautioned Pavlounis. Inaccurate information has been spread, largely by those pundits who present themselves as journalists, but could more accurately be described as “entertainers,” he said.

Kids need to learn how to identify whether a story was primarily written to inform us of facts, as objectively and accurately as possible, or to persuade us of something. Many texts written by marketers and lobbyists can seem like news articles at first glance. “Once you’ve distinguished between those things, then you can talk with your kids about bias and slant,” added Pavlounis.

Talk with your kids about the language used to report events.

Looking at how different news outlets were describing the people who stormed the Capitol can be eye-opening for older kids. They were called everything from “protesters” to “insurrectionists,” from “domestic terrorists” to “Trump’s mob.”

Pavlounis said, “Have a conversation with older kids about the implications of language choices: ′What happens if this outlet calls them ‘protesters’ and that one calls them insurrectionists?,’ adding “For any child who’s been engaged with the news over the summer, this will probably switch on some lightbulbs about the words used to describe Black Lives Matter protesters ― and that can spark interesting discussion about the goals and actions of these two different groups: Are they different or the same? Should they be described with the same or different words? Why are certain media outlets making certain choices?”

Being transparent with young people about the fact organizations create guidelines about the words their reporters should use is helpful. “Kids and teens love to see how the sausage is made,” Pavlounis explained. “They can agree or disagree with the decisions of the news outlet, but it’s good for them to know that these conversations are happening.”

“Figure out what your child cares about: Are they interested in the racial politics? Are they interested in platform moderation? Go with that!”

- Dimitri Pavlounis

Help them make sense of the images.

When the news gets intense and kids are bombarded with scary and upsetting images, it can be a lot to take in. Even as grown-ups, we need time to feel our emotions over news events before we start intellectualizing. “Ask your kid, ‘What do you feel when you look at this image?,’” said Pavlounis, “and then follow up with ‘Why do you think it makes you feel that way?’”

The next step would be to ask questions like: ‘What do they tell you about society?’ ‘How are they being used?’ ‘Why are they being shared?’ ’Why is this image being shared in juxtaposition with that one?’ Photos, memes and videos from the Washington riots can prompt conversations about issues like white privilege, social inequities and larger social issues.

Guide your kids not to fall into the trap of watching one video or rapidly scrolling through disturbing images, without pausing to make sense of them.

Guide your child or teen about healthy news consumption.

The news can send kids spiraling, especially when it involves violence and hate. Doomscrolling and spending too much time on social media can have a serious impact on anyone’s mental health, and teens and children are particularly vulnerable.

Things that are outrageous make me sad and concerned ― every day there is something,” said Penelope. “There’s always a shooting. Amber Alerts freak me out.”

Pavlounis suggests reminding kids and teens to take “a breather,” if they’re feeling overwhelmed. You don’t have to read and watch everything to stay informed. As parents, we may also need to shut off the television, if what we’re watching on the news could be disturbing to our kids ― even older teens.

Look for signs of overwhelm in your kid, if they become engrossed in the news cycle.
Look for signs of overwhelm in your kid, if they become engrossed in the news cycle.

Pick your life lessons.

There are so many directions you could take in unpacking the ever-unfolding news of the day. One thing not to do is attempt is to cover every angle or lecture your kid. “Figure out what your child cares about,” suggested Pavlounis. “Are they interested in the racial politics? Are they interested in platform moderation? Go with that!”

Since many adults need to learn more about these timely topics as well, he also recommends parents brush up on the topics they know less about, to help them talk with their kids.

It’s also good, Yates said, to help kids maintain a sense of their own agency in the world, rather than feel defeated by events like these. “I explain there are bad people in the world who do bad things and make bad choices. And things are going to happen,” he said. When bad things take over the news, he reminds his daughters of this:

“We need, in our own lives, to choose good friends and role models, and not to trust everyone we meet. Unfortunately the world is not a fair place and for many people it’s not a safe place. But we can try to live with purpose, treat people with kindness, and try to make good choices and help when we have the opportunity. The little things we do in our own lives are important and can make a difference.”