Teens Need to Be Able to Discern Fact From Fiction. That's Where Adults Come In
Parents and teachers should team up to take on media literacy
This summer, a new California law goes into effect, aimed at supporting media literacy in my home state's school systems. Effective July 1, the statute requires the state Department of Education to provide online resources on media literacy for use by school districts. And some U.S. senators have reportedly floated similar legislation at the national level. These efforts can't come soon enough, given how fast unreliable and provocative online information is dividing the country and challenging the very stability of our democracy.
Laws can only go so far, however. We need to get teachers and parents involved in grassroots efforts to promote media literacy at all levels of education. If you have a high school student in your household as I do, it's time to talk with other parents, reach out to the social studies department, and get organized. If you are a teacher, you should either embrace whatever proactive measures your students' parents want to make or be the first to encourage such a coalition. We need leadership on both sides.
It's become clear that "fake news"—the heralding of misinformation as verified fact or the dismissal of verified fact as misinformation—affects the way adolescents relate to one another and their understanding of the world around them, and thus could have serious negative effects on society in the future. According to market research from the brand-intelligence firm Survata, 65 percent of teens talk about politics weekly at school, and 66 percent regularly discuss "fake news." What's more, 60 percent of teens said fake news made their conversations either tension-filled or confusing.
Teens increasingly distrust all media and are active in the political rhetoric dividing our country as never before. Last year, Pew Research Center found 89 percent of teens were online either "almost constantly" or "several times a day." A few years earlier, Common Sense Media found teens get most of their news online and on social media in particular. It's imperative for their intellectual development, as well as the country's future, that they become citizens who can distinguish between fact and fiction as they participate in our democracy.
A parent-teacher coalition could create a politically agnostic baseline for media literacy, nudging kids to pause and critique before accepting reports as true. For instance, as a basic rule, teens should be taught to vet the source of a news story and analyze whether it offers a balance of views or just argues a predetermined opinion and is inflammatory. Parents and teachers are natural leaders for this initiative. If they team up, they'd be especially formidable agents for better media literacy. While a 2015 survey from Common Sense Media found that 30 percent of teens believe their parents know "a little" or "nothing" about what social media apps and sites they frequent, the kids also said moms and dads have the largest impact on determining what is appropriate online.
There are blueprints for success when it comes to parent-aided school programs attacking social ills. With teenage drinking on a historic decline and unwanted pregnancies at an all-time low, it is reasonable to assume that the active efforts of parents and educators to ingrain common-sense principles in kids have paid off.
In the same vein, parent-teacher coalitions should launch dedicated groups on social media. Members of the coalitions can follow the same Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram pages of various media organizations and share items for discussion. Coalition members do not have to be on all of these social platforms, but they should be encouraged to be on as many as they feel comfortable with. As a group, they should monitor and analyze social-media reactions to news around issues that matter to adolescents, such as school shootings, body image, and the #MeToo movement. Such online discussions can inform parents how to supplement the current-events discussions their kids are having in social studies class. These instances also offer opportunities for parents, teachers, and students to hone their own fact-checking skills by checking links to see which sources of information are fake and which are authentic.
Parents need to act now because technology is emerging that will strain the concept of "seeing is believing." The software is out there to create fake videos by overlaying a person's face on another's body. Other artificial intelligence systems are being developed that can actually fabricate faces, reproduce someone's exact speech patterns, and show detailed cityscapes that don't exist.
For the foreseeable future, separating credible content from falsehoods will be homework for teens and adults alike. The most basic level of media literacy—the encouragement of critical thinking—should be as much as a part of academic study as decoding red, yellow, and green lights. The information superhighway needs driver's ed. like never before.