Kids learn about what’s happening in the world from their peers, teachers, relatives and, of course, social media. But word-of-mouth and the internet both have their flaws when it comes to accuracy. That’s where parents come in.
“Communicating with your kids about news and current events is important because it has become incredibly challenging to navigate the fire hose of information, including the relentless news cycle, each and every day,” Michelle Lipkin, executive director of the National Association for Media Literacy Education, told HuffPost. “The lines between entertainment and news are blurred. It’s also hard to distinguish credible information from inaccurate information.”
She noted that news is often sensationalized and individual articles or clips don’t always express the true complexity of a given issue. Additionally, certain things don’t get much coverage, while other topics flood the social media sphere.
“Media literacy skills aren’t something kids will necessarily pick up on their own ― they are something caregivers and teachers need to teach and nourish,” said Erin Wilkey Oh, director of content and family partnerships at Common Sense Media. “Younger kids and even some middle schoolers have a hard time fully understanding the news and media messages. Teens are better able to understand current events, but they can still struggle to sift fact from opinion.”
Teaching kids media literacy may feel like an overwhelming endeavor, but much of the work simply lies in encouraging questions and building basic critical thinking skills.
“Learning to ask questions when you are navigating the news is a key step in becoming a media literate citizen,” Lipkin said. “Whether you are watching a documentary, playing a video game, or reading a news article, you always want to be curious and skeptical about the information.”
To that end, HuffPost asked Lipkin and Wilkey Oh to share the questions they recommend that parents ask when their kids present them with “news” they saw online. By going through these questions in response to a piece of media, you’ll help your children get into the habit of thinking critically about information and build a more media-literate society.
Who created this content?
“A useful first step when analyzing a piece of information is to identify who created it,” Wilkey Oh said. “This can help kids think about the credibility of the source and whether the information is trustworthy.”
She advised telling your children to look out for unusual URLs or website names, as many sources of misinformation try to appear like legitimate news outlets. Other signs that they should be skeptical include headlines with glaring grammatical errors and sensationalist images and formatting.
“Consider whether other credible, mainstream news outlets are reporting the same news,” Wilkey Oh said. “If they’re not, it doesn’t mean it’s not true, but it does mean you should dig deeper.”
Talking about the source gets kids in the habit of inspecting a news outlet, TikTok account or other source of information before immediately taking everything it publishes as fact or sharing it with others.
“Ask them about the source,” said Erik Bean, author of “Bias Is All Around You” and a state advocate for Media Literacy Now. “What do they know? Has it existed for a long time? Is it considered a journalistic source or is it perhaps a social media post by an individual just expressing their opinion? Does the information contain any other citations to validate its claims? Is the information current or outdated? Older information does not mean it’s bad, it just means there could be newer more updated information on the story.”
Where does the information come from?
“We must explain to children not to immediately believe everything they read online,” Bean said.
He compared news consumption to a game of telephone, in which information is often tainted, changed or otherwise gets away from its original meaning. This is an analogy that kids can understand as well.
“If possible, always strive to go to its original source,” Bean advised.
Teach children to look for citations or links to other outlets as they assess information and be on alert for bold claims with no sourcing. If the piece purports to be original reporting, ask them to consider who the creator spoke to and whether each is a trustworthy person with authoritative knowledge on the subject or firsthand experience.
“Just because their friends may believe something they view as a news story, does not mean it is true,” Bean noted. “Kids often want to fit in ― it’s affinity bias and halo effect ― or only read the first piece of information that comes along ― which is anchoring bias. This is why the topic is so important to discuss with our children.”
Why was this made?
Lipkin recommended asking questions like “Why was this made?” and “What does this want me to do or think or feel?”
“Understanding who is behind the media and what they want to accomplish is an important part of analyzing and evaluating content,” she explained.
Talk about the purpose of the message to readers, viewers or listeners. The goal might not be to share accurate information.
“When kids identify the creator’s purpose, they can better analyze the credibility of the message,” Wilkey Oh said. “Is it to inform, entertain, or persuade, or could it be some combination of these? This can also lead to conversations about possible motives behind why certain messages are created and shared. Is it to gain power, profit, or influence?”
“Media literacy skills aren’t something kids will necessarily pick up on their own ― they are something caregivers and teachers need to teach and nourish.”
Whose perspectives or values are represented and whose are left out?
“There’s usually more than one side to a story,” Wilkey Oh noted. “We all bring our own perspectives to how we interpret what we see.”
Talk about the target audience, as well as the identity and values of the creator and people featured in the content. Consider their backgrounds and experiences in terms of race, gender, socioeconomic status, sexuality and other aspects of identity and how that plays into the information.
“Media messages are also embedded with values and points of view,” Wilkey Oh said. “It’s helpful for kids to think about different perspectives so they can put the information within the context of what they know.”
What is omitted that might be important to know?
“When it comes to news content, a really important question to ask is, ‘What is left out that might be important to know?’” Lipkin said. “No news story is complete. No news story can address the complexity of an issue in its entirety.”
She explains that many factors limit what is shared in a piece of media, from the format and length to the people who created it and the interviews they were able to secure or couldn’t access.
“There is always something missing,” Lipkin said. “By asking what is not presented, you are leading yourself to getting more information about the topic or at least recognizing that there is a lot more you need to know before you truly assess the information.”
How might different people respond to this?
“Another great question to ask is ‘how might different people respond to this?‘” Lipkin noted. “People use their individual skills, beliefs and experiences to construct their own meanings from media messages. Understanding this allows us to think beyond whether or not something is ‘true’ and more about how different people will interpret it.”
Ask your kids to examine the reaction the content evokes in them and if they think that’s the intended response. Then, encourage them to look beyond what their personal reaction is and think about people in their community and other communities in the world. It’s always good to practice taking other people’s perspectives into account.
Ultimately, as an adult, you model what healthy news consumption and critical thinking look like.
“If you are stressed by the news, have news notifications coming in regularly, and are quick to share breaking news or news that makes you emotional, your children will learn to behave the same way,” Lipkin said. “You don’t need to know everything that happens the minute it happens. Creating a healthy relationship with media in the home starts with you.”