Imagine giving your 11-year-old the keys to your car and telling them to drive to the grocery store to pick up a few essentials. Would you be terrified that, without any training or preparation, your child would harm themselves or others? Of course you would. But that's precisely what we may be doing by giving kids and teens access to the internet without "the tools to judge what information is trustworthy and what is potentially harmful," says Howard Schneider, the executive director for the Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University.
Schneider, who is also the founding dean of the School of Journalism at the university, helped develop the country's first course in News Literacy in 2006, designed to teach students how to become more discerning consumers of the news. A version of the course is now being taught at schools all over the country and overseas.
It's a heartening fact, given that the case for bolstering news literacy among young people couldn't be stronger. A 2016 report released by Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) found a "dismaying inability by students to reason about information they see on the internet," despite being digital-savvy. Students, it found, struggled to distinguish news articles from advertisements and identify where information originated.
An inability to differentiate between fake and accurate, reliable news isn't something to overlook. It can lead to uninformed decisions at the polls, sow distrust in public institutions, and even directly harm a person's well-being since many potentially dangerous fake health news articles are shared on social media. An example: A false article about how dandelion weed can cure cancer went viral on Facebook in 2016.
"News literacy education is an intervention—an attempt to inoculate every 11-year-old in the country with the skills and values to boost their immune system to fight false and deceptive information," says Schneider. He also emphasizes that when helpful habits are instilled in a young person, they can last a lifetime.
But as a parent, it can be tricky to know how to tackle the issue. Here are expert-approved tips for teaching kids of all ages how to become smart news consumers and identify what's fake from what's real.
Define "fake news"
Because it is in the zeitgeist, kids might already be well-versed with the term "fake news," but they might not fully comprehend its meaning or think it is a joke, says Schneider. "Explain that 'fake news' is news that is totally made up. It's not news that you disagree with."
Then teach them about reliable news sources. Define them as an outlet that employs experienced journalists, makes an effort to verify information, and is independent, says Schneider. Show them examples. By contrast, "they should not trust news from a source that is anonymous, or is authored by someone that only uses their first name or a nickname," he says.
Help kids sort fact from opinion
Nowadays, whether you're watching cable news, reading an essay online, or scrolling through your favorite magazine on a tablet, the lines are often blurred between unbiased reports and information that's been filtered through a particular lens. For that reason, Schneider recommends talking to your children, even when they are under 10, about the difference between fact and opinion and why it's important to get both sides of a story.
"To dramatize the latter, consider reading The Story of the Three Little Pigs, and then Jon Scieszka's The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, which tells the story from the wolf's perspective," says Schneider. "These discussions will lay a foundation for critical thinking about news as they grow older."
It could also be useful to compare and contrast movie reviews and an ad for a particular film. This exercise can be useful to highlight the difference between sponsored content or advertisements and an original news source, says Schneider.
Also, it's likely your family might "have defined values-based beliefs or strong political views" that you wish to instill in your children, notes Angela Corbo, Ph.D., associate professor and chair of the communications studies program at Widener University. "It is natural to gravitate to media sources that promote our views," she says. "However parents can talk about their values and traditions as it relates to the news media while acknowledging differing points of view."
Keep in mind: it's never too early to start. As soon as kids are old enough to enjoy storytime before bed, they're old enough to begin creating a foundation of media literacy, says Katie Foss, Ph.D., associate professor and head of media studies at Middle Tennessee State University.
"Before children are emotionally ready to read what we consider news, we can teach them how to think critically about age-appropriate media," she notes. "Reading with young children is the first step to developing critical thinkers. Engage with toddlers and preschoolers about their stories. Ask them questions about the characters and the overall objective of the story, as well as their feelings about the book."
Whether kids are scrolling past a post on Instagram, watching a video on YouTube, or reading a story in the school newspaper, urge them to ask questions like: "Where am I getting this news from?" "What is the original source?" "Who says this?"
You can cast it as playing detective. Once kids come across a news report on a social platform, the next step is to "get to the bottom of the story" and "practice tracking down some stories to their original source," says Schneider. Make sure to note that just because a report has been reposted or repurposed by a secondary source, it doesn't necessarily mean it's false, but either way, it's always best to pinpoint the original story.
Point out that just because an Instagram post has thousands of likes or a tweet has blown up, it doesn't mean it's offering up reliable information. "Caution them not to confuse popularity with reliability, or the rank of a story on a search engine algorithm with whether it's true and accurate," says Schneider. "There are too many examples that prove the opposite. They can be easily fooled."
Then, encourage your little ones to be "part of the solution and not the problem," says Schneider. "Urge them not to share any news or information with friends unless they can verify its accuracy by checking with other sources."
Work on lateral reading
You can take it a step further by working on lateral reading. Kids who are well-versed with multitasking on a laptop or other device would benefit from this technique used by fact-checkers, says Schneider. "Leave a story or video and check out key information from other sources, before returning to the original story, often by opening another computer tab and conducting an internet search," he explains. "This is a key way to combat misleading stories and websites."
This method especially comes in handy when kids come across a suspicious report. "Check whether fact-checking websites such as Snopes.com or FactCheck.org have investigated the information, or just type the claim into a Google search and add the word 'hoax,'" he says. "Do the same for startling photos: Paste images into reverse search engines like TinEye.com. Startling images often are not fake, but rather have appeared before in a different context."
Make news part of daily family life
Even if kids aren't actively sitting down to read or watch the news, they're coming in contact with it every day by "hearing snatches on television or the radio, or from friends in school," says Schneider. Discussion can stimulate their interest in it, which can stimulate their enthusiasm about learning best practices.
If they're less than engaged, try this: Impose a 24-hour news blackout. "No news, weather reports, ball scores, or conversations with friends about the news for 24 hours," says Schneider. After the blackout, ask your children for their reaction. "This is likely to spur a lively family discussion and build an appetite and appreciation for news," he notes.
Promote skepticism, not cynicism
In the process of teaching news literacy, you'll do well to offer your child a balanced perspective. "While it's fine to point out examples of flawed news reports, don't relentlessly denigrate the news media, promoting distrust and cynicism," warns Schneider. "Cite examples of where the news media uncovers important issues. Reenforce its role as watchdog in a democracy." To that end, you can discuss how the media is considered a fourth branch of government.