How to Tackle Unreliable News and Promote Digital Literacy

‘Media impacts our kids’ lives today in almost every way.

Whether they are interacting with friends on social media, clicking on advertising to see the latest trend, watching their favourite videos on YouTube or reading a book, media influences the way they live their lives and how they see the world.’ — National Association for Media Literacy Education

Being an informed and critical thinker in a technology and media-rich world has become the foundation of critical digital literacy. Keep in mind that critical literacy goes beyond children.

In an age where it is difficult to distinguish fact from opinion and having an understanding of how media can be used to put undue persuasion and false information on people is challenging. According to Polizzi in his summary of a government report in the UK, ‘ critical literacy in the digital age should entail awareness of how and why information is created, disseminated and consumed in the digital well as the ability to evaluate information by questioning its trustworthiness.’

Unreliable news is often difficult to define but includes news or content that is deliberately meant to be false or misleading and used for financial gain, to persuade others to take action, purchase a product or promote or denigrate a political party or candidate.

In the UK study of 388 primary and 1832 secondary school students, only 2% of children had the critical literacy skills to discern legitimate news from misleading news and half of them were worried about whether they had the ability to identify it. Of the 414 teachers surveyed, 61% were concerned about unreliable news affecting children’s well-being and some were worried about it creating anxiety among students. Fact or opinion?

One example cited is that 1 out of 4 children believed that a website can be trusted if it is listed by a search engine. This is a concerning statistic because this, therefore, means many children are believing all websites are trustworthy. This is because they don’t realise that search engines are unable to discriminate between trustworthy and untrustworthy websites – it’s rather a collection of them all. 

Teach your kids to ask questions

Parents should encourage their children to ask the following questions each time they encounter a piece of media:

  • Why was this made? 
  • Who made it? 
  • Who is the target audience?
  • How do I know this is true? 
  • Who might benefit from this message? 
  • Who might be harmed by this message?
  • What is left out of this message that might be important?
  • Is this credible (and what makes you think that)?

Further advice for guiding the questions from Common Sense Media 

According to the experts at Media Smarts, there are many different kinds of false information being spread around. Before you buy into something (or share it), make sure it isn’t one of these:

  • Hoaxes and false news: These are spread on purpose to mislead people. Sometimes these are motivated by malicious or mischievous intent; sometimes they are motivated for ideological or political purposes; other times they’re done for financial gain.
  • Scams: Sometimes the purpose of a fake story is to separate you from your money, to get you to give up your personal information, or to get you to click on a link that will download malware onto your computer. 
  • Ads: Some things that are spread around are obviously ads, but others are disguised as “real” content.

Joanne Orlando, a technology and learning researcher at Western Sydney University, also advises parents to understand ‘the rules’ that many websites are now choosing to comply with, “Many social media sites are now also cracking down on (and penalising) the spread of untrustworthy news. Showing kids the restrictions these sites are imposing on their users will help them get a rounded understanding of the problem”. 

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