Have you seen the endangered Pacific Northwest tree octopus? No? Probably because it was a 1998 internet hoax that duped many with photos of adorable cephalopods nestled in pine trees. Today, determining what’s true and what’s false online might be harder than whether or not the tree octopus is real—especially for kids. Self-proclaimed experts and anyone with a social media account push out content that may or may not be entirely accurate and is widely shared until it becomes indistinguishable from truth. How can kids learn to sort fact from fiction in our ever-changing digital landscape? Media literacy.
“Media literacy is an extension of traditional literacy skills,” says Erin Wilkey Oh, executive editor of education content at Common Sense Media. It is the ability to think critically about different types of media—and how and why media is created. Media literacy includes helping kids learn how to think critically about the news and media they encounter. It teaches them to recognize how it’s made, evaluate its credibility and purpose, and consider its influence on us, Wilkey Oh says.
In Colorado, some pieces of media literacy are included in the 2020 Colorado Academic Standards such as information literacy, and the use of information and communication technology for K-12 students, says Christine Schein, digital literacy instructional specialist at the Colorado Department of Education. Teachers are working to incorporate media literacy into conversations, and the schools that she works with recognize that it’s a priority, says Schein.
Still, others believe schools can do more. “I think we’ve done [students] a disservice because we’ve given everyone a device with internet access and said, ‘Here you go,’” says Adam Dawkins, a high school teacher at Regis Jesuit High School in Aurora. “We’ve given them this amazing tool, but we haven’t taught them how to sift through information they encounter properly.”
As a result, educators and legislators are taking steps to bring more media literacy into the curriculum of classrooms statewide. A media literacy bill is currently moving through the state legislature and would form a panel to make recommendations for how to teach it in elementary, middle, and high schools.
At home, parents often have the first opportunity to talk about media literacy with kids. But when do you start, and what do you say or do?
Encourage Thoughtful Use of Online Media
Parents might assume that because kids are digital natives—meaning they’ve been exposed to technology from a young age—they are able to navigate, sift, and understand what they’re viewing online because it’s always been a part of their lives. But that’s just not the case, says Dawkins. He recommends engaging kids in talking about online content on a regular basis, rather than waiting it out or unplugging altogether. For example, talk to your kids about how to find reliable information during breaking news events. Discuss how to recognize content on the internet that is misleading or fake, suggests Dawkins.
Wilkey Oh agrees. “Common Sense Media encourages thoughtful, balanced use of media, rather than media bans,” she says, adding that setting family media rules keeps everyone on the same page. Watch shows or movies, play video games, or discuss news stories together—then talk about different perspectives as part of the activity, says Wilkey Oh. “As a parent, be thoughtful about how you consume media and model healthy skepticism,” she says. If you feel rusty, check out the resources shown right.
Schein says that it’s important that children think critically about media, and consider how they repeat and share news on social media apps. She suggests that kids should ask themselves: Is this fact or opinion? Also, who wrote this and what is their viewpoint?
Have an honest conversation about how kids talk to peers online. Parents can ask: What are you communicating to your friends? What are you saying about them, or about someone you don’t know—and why would you do that? Would you say that to their face? “Start young and keep the conversation going,” says Schein.
Conversations at Home and in School
Even when you are sitting at home watching TV with your family, you can have conversations about media literacy. With very young children, ask about the purpose of commercials on television and how they differ from programs. Say, “How is the commercial different than a show? What is its purpose?”
Couch conversations could transfer to the classroom. For example, young elementary students learn the difference between fact and opinion. Older grades might learn the difference between sponsored content, opinion pieces, news stories, or features, asking questions like: “Who is the writer? Who is the publisher? Are there images or videos that give clues to the source or quality of this information?”
Dawkins says student journalism in middle and high school is critical to supporting media literacy. Students have the opportunity to be writers, editors, and producers of student newspapers, magazines, yearbooks, broadcast programs, and websites—getting hands-on experience making news products and making decisions about their audience and coverage. Dawkins says that Colorado has a strong history of these programs in its schools. He is on the board of the Colorado Student Media Association, which provides resources and training for students and teachers.
Parents shouldn’t underestimate their own role in promoting media literacy, says Schein. “You are the parent and you are still the most influential person in that child’s life,” she says. “When you have those little bits of conversations with them, they’re taking it to heart more than you think.”
Resources to Sharpen Your Media Literacy Skills
- Common Sense Media: Most well-known for its rating and editorial reviews; each review has a section with questions and conversation starters. They also have parent advice for understanding apps and social media.
- Net Cetera from the US Federal Trade Commission: Resources for online safety, media literacy, and identity theft and scams.
- AllSides: Displays top news stories, side-by-side, from the left, center, and right of the political spectrum, along with media bias ratings.
- Blue Feed, Red Feed by The Wall Street Journal: See current discussions on Facebook from conservative and liberal viewpoints, side-by-side.