Discover more from Is My Kid the Asshole?
Raising Kids Who Can Tell Fact from Fiction
How should we teach children to think critically about information and news?
This is the free edition of Is My Kid the Asshole?, a newsletter from science journalist, professional speaker and author Melinda Wenner Moyer, which you can read more about here. If you like it, please subscribe and/or share this post with someone else who would too.
Hi everyone! Before I jump into today’s newsletter, I have two quick announcements: First, my 30% off paid subscription sale ends TODAY, so if you’ve been sitting on the fence, now’s the time to jump over to the other side. For just $3.50 a month or $30 for the first year, you will get my weekly subscriber threads as well as additional science-based parenting advice and the ability to search through my archives.
Also: Our Parent Scream last Saturday was so great. (Read last week’s newsletter for more about why I have been hosting Parent Screams.) One of the things we discussed in the thread was that many of you feel isolated and want more opportunities to connect with parents. So I’m trying something new — an experiment that may or may not work. I’ve created two new free Sections you can subscribe to in my Substack: “Parent Connections - Kids Under 5” and “Parent Connections - Kids Over 5.” In both of these, I’ll have an ongoing discussion thread (the first will go out tomorrow) where you can connect and chat with other parents whenever you like. If there’s enough interest, I’ll also post weekly threads tied to specific topics. Think of these as Slack channels, but living here on Substack. Note: You won’t automatically be subscribed to a section, so you’ll need to go to your Account page and subscribe there.
Now, onto today’s topic: How can we teach kids to distinguish between reliable and unreliable sources of information? Between real and fake news, paid content and journalism, lies and truths? I consider this to be one of the most crucial questions facing our society right now, because we’re learning — over and over and over again — just how much damage can be done to a democracy when people can’t think critically. I dug into the issue for a feature that’s just been published in the February issue of Scientific American, and I’d like to share some of the key insights. (Like many of my newsletters, this one is part essay, part advice. First, I’ll discuss the issue and the research; then I’ll give you pointers for fostering critical thinking at home.)
There’s no question that we need to be teaching kids critical thinking skills in elementary and middle school. This is when kids first encounter the Internet and YouTube (YouTube has been called “The Great Radicalizer” because of its propensity to recommend extreme, conspiratorial videos). And kids are often none the wiser when they encounter questionable content, as I wrote in my piece:
Age 14 is when kids often start believing in unproven conspiratorial ideas, according to a study published in September 2021 in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology. Many teens also have trouble assessing the credibility of online information. In a 2016 study involving nearly 8,000 U.S. students, Stanford University researchers found that more than 80 percent of middle schoolers believed that an advertisement labeled as sponsored content was actually a news story. The researchers also found that less than 20 percent of high schoolers seriously questioned spurious claims in social media, such as a Facebook post that said images of strange-looking flowers, supposedly near the site of a nuclear power plant accident in Japan, proved that dangerous radiation levels persisted in the area.
If you’re thinking I don’t need to teach my kids these skills because they’ll learn them at school, think again. Illinois just became the first U.S. state to require all high schoolers to take a (one, single) media literacy class. And while 13 other states have some kind of media literacy laws in place, many are vague and essentially useless — requiring, say, that schools simply include a list of resources on an education department website.
Even if we had better media literacy curricula in our schools, it’s unclear how much good they would do — because media literacy scholars can’t agree on how to teach these skills. There are plenty of theories, but there’s been little rigorous research on what truly works and lasts — and making matters worse, there’s not a lot of clarity on what the ultimate goals should be. Do we just want kids to be able to discern the credibility of the information they encounter? Do we also want them to think about who’s in control of the information and why, and whose stories are and aren’t being told? What other skills do we need to instill in them if we want them to ultimately become civically engaged members of society?
Making matters even more complicated, teaching “critical thinking” can, in some cases, backfire, making people so cynical that they reject all mainstream information as lies or “fake news.” As danah boyd, a technology scholar at Microsoft Research and founder and president of the Data & Society research institute, said this in a 2018 talk at the South by Southwest media conference:
The funny thing about education is that we ask our students to challenge their assumptions. And that process can be enlightening. I will never forget being a teenager and reading “The People’s History of the United States.” The idea that there could be multiple histories, multiple truths blew my mind. Realizing that history is written by the winners shook me to my core. This is the power of education. But the hole that opens up, that invites people to look for new explanations…that hole can be filled in deeply problematic ways. When we ask students to challenge their sacred cows but don’t give them a new framework through which to make sense of the world, others are often there to do it for us.
One of my sources, Seth Ashley, an associate professor of journalism and media studies at Boise State University, argued that to avoid falling into the cynicism trap, we need to help kids develop mindsets in which they become comfortable with uncertainty. As I wrote in my piece:
According to educational psychologist William Perry of Harvard University, students go through various stages of learning. First children are black-and-white thinkers—they think there are right answers and wrong answers. Then they develop into relativists, realizing that knowledge can be contextual. This stage can be dangerous, however. It is the one where, as Russell notes, people can come to believe there is no truth. Ashley adds that when students think everything is a lie, they also think there is no point in engaging with difficult topics.
With news literacy education, the goal is to get students to the next level, “to that place where you can start to see and appreciate the fact that the world is messy, and that’s okay,” Ashley says. “You have these fundamental approaches to gathering knowledge that you can accept, but you still value uncertainty, and you value ongoing debates about how the world works.” Instead of driving students to apathy, the goal is to steer them toward awareness and engagement.
So what can we do as parents to inch our kids in the right direction? We may not have all the answers yet — we really, really need more research — but there are things we can do that will almost certainly lay important groundwork. Here are my four key recommendations based on conversations with media and news literacy scholars.
Encourage your kids to ask questions about the media they consume or the claims they hear.
If I had a dime for every time my 10-year-old made a pronouncement about the world that wasn’t even remotely true, I’d own a castle in the south of France by now. Often, my son is simply repeating claims he’s heard from friends or news sources, and in those moments, I encourage him to reflect on where that information came from — and whether it is or isn’t trustworthy. I might say That’s interesting; where did you hear that? and then continue with additional follow-up questions. Where do you think your friend heard that? How can you be sure it’s true?
Likewise, when my 7-year-old comes bounding in demanding that we buy her the new remote control car she saw in a TV commercial, I try to turn the attention to the commercial itself. I ask her questions like: Where did you hear about this cool toy? Who do you think made that commercial, and why did they make it? What’s their ultimate goal, and how might that goal affect how honest they are being about how awesome it is?
The National Association for Media Literacy Education recommends prompting your kids to ask the following questions about the media they consume:
Why was this made?
Who made it?
What is missing?
How might different people interpret it?
How do I know this is true?
Who might benefit from or be harmed by this message?
Sometimes, we won’t have clear answers to all of these questions, and that’s OK. The goal, ultimately, is to encourage kids to pause and think about the information they get, rather than to merely accept things at face value.
Teach your kids to assess the credibility of organizations and websites through lateral reading.
When I read about the various approaches to teaching news and media literacy, one method stood out to me because of the compelling emerging research behind it. In 2019, Stanford education researcher Sam Wineburg and his colleagues conducted a study in which they compared how 10 history professors, 10 journalism fact-checkers and 25 Stanford undergraduates evaluated websites and information on social and political issues. They found that whereas historians and students were often fooled by manipulative websites, journalism fact-checkers were not — and their methods differed significantly, too.
Historians and students tried to assess the validity of websites and information by reading vertically — navigating within the website to learn more about it — while journalism fact-checkers read laterally, opening new browser tabs for different sources and running searches to judge the original website’s credibility. This approach was much, much more effective, in that the fact-checkers were able to assess the ties the websites had to industries or other potential sources of bias.
This is obviously not an approach you can teach a toddler, or even, really, a preschooler. But in grade school — and especially in middle and high school, as kids start exploring the Internet and doing research-based projects for school — you can teach them some of the basics of lateral reading. Here’s a 4-minute video by Wineburg’s team that discusses how and why lateral reading works so well, and if you want a step-by-step tutorial, I recommend you (and your kid) watch this more detailed 13-minute video. Essentially: You want to teach kids to evaluate sources of information by seeing what other trustworthy sources of information say about that source.
Encourage your kids to consider whether (and why) they’re living in a “filter bubble,” and teach them about confirmation bias and privacy.
We (and our kids) might think of Google as an unbiased source of information, but the fact is that search engines and news feeds learn from us in order to give us the information we want. And of course, Facebook and YouTube show us what they think we want to see (sometimes skewing more and more politically extreme over time), too. We need to be sure our kids know this. As Ashley wrote in a piece he wrote for The Conversation:
Algorithms are the secret computer code that try to predict what will keep you engaged, and they’re baked into news feeds, search results, recommendations, trending topics and autocomplete.
Algorithms also reflect our own biases and can cater to our preexisting beliefs, even those that are false, by showing us more of what we already think we know. Fears about algorithmic filter bubbles may have been overblown, but there is still a need to be on guard against confirmation bias, where we favor information that fits with our beliefs.
We should also talking to our kids about confirmation bias, which is the tendency for us to be too accepting of information that we want to hear (that aligns with our beliefs or worldviews) and too critical of information we don’t want to hear (that challenges our beliefs or worldviews). Confirmation bias can serve to keep us in our filter bubble, ensuring that we only absorb the information with which we already agree.
Another thing I discuss in my book is the importance of talking to kids about privacy, and the fact that companies like Facebook and Instagram are constantly trying to track our behavior in order to sell things to us. Here’s a link to a great lesson on Internet privacy developed by the digital literacy program Cyber Civics. Bottom line: We need to teach our kids that the apps they love and trust are often trying to manipulate us so that we spent more time on them — and ultimately, so that they can make more money from us.
I’m doing an online event on Wednesday, February 16 at 7:30pm ET with the Hudson River Park Mothers Group. I’ll be talking about my book and answering audience questions. Register here! And remember that you can hire me to speak to your school, parents’ group, company or community organization. Contact me to brainstorm ideas!