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Learning in an age of misinformation

What role can we play in helping children be critical consumers and creators of news and media?

As the world struggles with the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic, and continuing political and social strife fuelled by misinformation and online divisions, it has never been more important to understand where children are getting their news. The news often comes in a non-stop barrage on digital devices, and children are setting their own standards for the platforms and people they consider to be trustworthy sources.

In the United States 52 per cent of children have their own smartphones by age 11 (Common Sense Media), they have access to so much information at their fingertips - and a lot of it is fuelled by misinformation, hate or divisiveness.

In a report carried out by Ofcom Children and parents:Media use and attitudes report 2019 half of ten-year-olds now own their own smartphone. Between the ages of nine and ten, smartphone ownership doubles - marking an important milestone in children's digital independence as they prepare for secondary school.

In the United States, our recent research Teens and the News: The Influencers, Celebrities, and Platforms They Say Matter Most, 2020, shows that teens no longer rely on traditional news outlets, with almost 80% getting their news from social media. What's more, while teens say they value news, they feel disconnected from established sources, with many turning to influencers and celebrities on YouTube and other social media platforms.

We also know that social media platforms are a mouthpiece for individuals, groups and organisations that are not news organisations. Increasingly, misinformation, disinformation and conspiracy theories are easily spread. Parents, teachers, policymakers and the media industry all have a responsibility to give children the tools to be informed citizens.

At Common Sense, we provide families and teachers the trustworthy information, advice and resources they need to support children in a digital age. Below are several pieces of advice for families and teachers to support children with news literacy.

Advice for families

From helping children learn to spot fake news, to teaching them critical thinking skills to help them differentiate fact from opinion, there is much that parents can do to help their children navigate a noisy, biased and challenging world. Here are our top tips for parents:

1. Encourage healthy scepticism

Help them analyse the messages around them -- from toy packaging to news headlines -- and question the purpose of the words and images they see.

2. Play "spot the advert"

When you see advertising, ask children to figure out what the advert is selling. Sometimes it's obvious and sometimes it isn't. Help them explore why certain pictures, sounds or words are used to sell certain products.

3. Explore different sides of a story

Use real-life examples to help children understand how people can view the same situation from totally different perspectives. One child might experience a game in the playground as fun, while another might feel like the rules are unfair. When appropriate, tie this example to a news story.

4. Discuss fact vs opinion

Play around with ideas and decide which are facts and which are opinions. Ask: How tall are you? What's the best food in the world? Do rocks sink or float? Do you like dogs? Point out that both facts and opinions show up in the news, but opinions are usually labelled.

5. Choose a variety of sources

Show children how you get news and information from different places and explain how you make your choices. Use words like "credible", "trustworthy", "respected" and "fair". As children get older, introduce the ideas of "bias", "satire" and "clickbait".

Resources for Families

Common Sense provides the following free and research-based resources for parents to support their children with their media and technology, including:

Advice for teachers

Teachers have an important role in helping learners to know what to trust online, and supporting them to explore how influence, persuasion and manipulation can impact their decisions, opinions and what they share online. If teachers don't broach difficult subjects in the classroom, learners will turn to their own sources. It's our job to help guide them to credible sources and diverse perspectives so they can build their own informed viewpoints. We believe news literacy is a core component of being a well-rounded digital citizen, and that's why we address it as a core topic in our Digital Citizenship lessons. We have to engage learners in thoughtful discussions about the social and cultural factors that contribute to the complicated, and at times divisive, climate we live in today.

1. Beyond Credible Sources

The current world of news media - both internet-based and otherwise - requires learners to have a critical, but not cynical, eye. Our lessons seek to help them develop a critical lens, but not by disavowing the knowledge and experiences that they already bring to the table. Personal experiences can help learners stay critically engaged, particularly when the source is social media or a news outlet with a particular point of view.

2. Fairness

We all have our favourites when it comes to where we get our news and entertainment media. And these favourites can reflect who we are: our personality, our gender, our cultural background, our age. Young people need to find and use their favourite news and media sources more effectively and critically. Our lessons address this issue without creating or implying a hierarchy of credible news sources. When learners are affirmed in their choices - and in who they are - they are much more likely to grow and learn.

3. Economics of the Internet

An important aspect of news and media literacy is "pulling back the curtain" on the media and technology industry to help learners understand how and why media is produced, and how the industry operates. Because much of the industry is based on advertising revenue, understanding advertising in a digital age is an important angle on this topic. Recent years have seen an explosion in new ways for advertisers to target children, including through immersion, "advergames", viral messaging, personalised online ads and location-based targeting. Learners need guidance in understanding the complicated landscape of how their data is used and how advertisers target them on the internet. They also need to understand the difference between an advertisement, opinion piece and news article written by a journalist.

Resources for Teachers

Common Sense provides the following free and research-based resources to teach learners  how to navigate a noisy, biased and challenging world, and engage families in news and media literacy, including:

Common Sense Education Digital Citizenship lessons are available Welsh on Hwb. Designed to cultivate both skills and dispositions to help young people thrive in our interconnected world, the resources are already used by 1 million educators worldwide.

With the right support from their families and schools, young people can learn to be critical, and not cynical, about the news and information they consume and share.


Kelly Mendoza, PhD

Sr. Director of Education Programs, Common Sense Education

Dr. Kelly Mendoza oversees digital citizenship education content and strategy for Common Sense Education, including the Digital Citizenship Curriculum, interactive games, professional development and parent engagement.