When parents teach their kids to be vigilant, they’re probably thinking about, say, avoiding strangers or watching for cars crossing the street — without deciphering whether that photo of the Pope is real or AI (artificial intelligence), or checking claims that they read online. But modern technology brings new challenges for parents who want their kids to have the skills they need to stay safe and sniff out questionable information online.
Media literacy is not an issue many parents feel capable of, and it is not regularly taught in American schools. So why is it a big deal? Dr. Ryan Sultan, a mental health physician, clinical director of Integrative Psych, and research professor at Columbia University, says he talks about digital media literacy in his practice…including the idea of what’s real and what’s not real. Jolie Rinebarger, a licensed clinical social worker at Kaiser Permanente, adds that good media and social media skills “can help parents and teens build resilience and hopefully lead to more positive outcomes.” And according to Rebekah Fitzsimmons, assistant professor of professional communications at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College, there’s another reason to learn these skills early. “We don’t want to raise kids who are gullible and conniving,” she says.
What is Media Literacy?
Media literacy is “the ability to critically analyze and understand the content and nature of media platforms,” explains Sultan. He explains this “includes recognizing biases, evaluating the credibility of sources, understanding privacy settings, and promoting responsible online behavior.” Social media literacy is a subset of media literacy and is an important layer to add to the conversation at a time when deepfake videos and AI-generated content are ubiquitous. It includes “understanding the language, technology, and impact of different social media platforms,” says Rinebarger.
When should parents start talking to their children about social media literacy?
These conversations should happen early. Even very young children can understand that an app that makes them look like a monster isn’t real. “However, these lessons get trickier as the kids get older and the differences become more subtle,” says Fitzsimmons. “It’s easy for me to tell my 6-year-old that the puppy ear filter on Snapchat isn’t real. It’s harder to remind a teen that the skin-smoothing filters, artful lighting, and carefully chosen photo angle make people look different on Instagram than in real life,” she explains.
When it comes to social media, parents should start talking to their kids about social media literacy as soon as they start using the internet and accessing social media platforms, Sultan recommends. He says this will vary from family to family, but it usually starts around age 8.
What are the risks of not teaching social media literacy?
According to Adam Chiara, an applied associate professor in the School of Communications at Hartford University, “Information is power. If children don’t know how to distinguish quality information from incorrect information, they will miss out on opportunities and benefits, and at worst, they will engage in media that may be harmful and dangerous to them.”
Sultan explains that children without media literacy skills are prone to believing misinformation and “fake news.” They can also inadvertently compromise their privacy and security by inadvertently revealing where they live or go to school or disclosing information that makes it easy for someone to guess their password and access sensitive information.
There are also social consequences. Children who lack media literacy are more likely to engage in cyberbullying or other harmful online behavior, says Sultan. They are also more likely to develop unhealthy relationships with social media and technology, he adds.
What are the social media skills children should learn?
Kids need to learn five different skills to handle social media, says Sultan.
How to rate sources
Sultans says it’s crucial that kids can understand “how to determine a source’s credibility, spot biases, and identify fake news.”
Fitzsimmons advises parents to “instill a healthy skepticism about the best results on Google and content posted on sources like Wikipedia.” Teaching children to consult multiple sources to seek out credible information is the next step, says Sultan. If a child comes across questionable material, a parent can help the child find other credible sources that cover the same topic so their child can evaluate what they found. Parents can show kids that questionable images can be checked using reverse image search to see if they have been modified.
Sultan adds that parents should teach their children that “if you’re still not sure about the content, it’s better to be careful and…don’t share or engage with the content until more information becomes available .”
Privacy and security
Second, children should be familiar with online privacy and safety. This means “knowing how to protect personal information online, understanding privacy settings, and being aware of potential dangers,” says Sultan. Fitzsimmons notes that she “sees mature adults still falling for the online memes that ask people to post the answers to common security questions on their Facebook page.” Teaching kids when it’s safe to share photos publicly and “when it’s appropriate to put their home address or phone number in a form is really important,” Fitzsimmons adds.
Sultan also recommends showing children phishing emails and texts so they learn how to identify them themselves.
According to Sultan, digital etiquette “includes practicing responsible online behavior, such as not participating in cyberbullying or sharing inappropriate content.”
Rinebarger says encouraging perspective taking by asking kids to put themselves in other people’s shoes can help them develop proper digital etiquette skil
ls. Talking about the real-world consequences of poor digital etiquette can also be helpful. Sharing embarrassing or inappropriate photos can lead to anger from peers, discipline at school, or make fun of a child.
Critical thinking ability
Sultan says that “developing the ability to question, analyze and interpret the information they encounter online” is an important part of media literacy. Fitzsimmons says this goes beyond teaching children whether something is true or not. For example, if a child sees a video about a toy that mentions where it is sold and what the price is, that information is probably correct. “However, it’s also worth helping them understand that the YouTuber is probably getting paid to try and sell those toys to their followers and thus might be exaggerating how great the toys are,” says Fitzsimmons. One way to do this is to ask your child, “Do you think that social media influencer got paid to make that post or not?” suggests Chiara.
If a child sees information they’re not sure is credible, it can be a great learning opportunity to ask a parent for help and make a decision together, says Sultan. Rinebarger tells parents to encourage children to ask questions suggested by Common Sense Media, including “Who made this?” Who is the target group? Does anyone benefit if you click on it? Who paid for this content? Who can benefit or be harmed by this message? What important information is omitted from the message? Is this believable? Why or why not?”
Emotional intelligence skills
Finally, children need to learn emotional intelligence skills and apply them to social media and online behavior. “Recognizing and managing emotions evoked by social media content, as well as empathy and respect for the feelings of others,” says Sultan. Fitzsimmons says parents should help children recognize that social media is not an accurate representation of a person’s life. She believes children should be taught that “what we put on social media is a self-chosen view of what is happening in our lives” and that “just because [people] Not posting the times when they are sad, discouraged or disappointed doesn’t mean it’s not happening.”
How can parents reinforce the message?
Teaching media literacy isn’t something parents can teach by having their kids sit down and “have the talk.” Instead, Chiara advises parents to raise the issue “when the opportunity arises” by looking for “organic moments” to ask their children questions that make them think critically.
“Practice and develop consistent habits,” he says. Parents will know that their children have made progress by observing how they react to the media they consume. see if the picture has changed,” he adds. “If they read a questionable story, the reflex should be to look for authoritative news sites or trusted organizations reporting the same thing.” Rinebarger recommends that parents monitor their children’s online activities monitor and gradually allow more independence as they see their teen “demonstrate confidence, maturity, and good media literacy skills.”
All this may seem like a lot of work, but it is well worth the effort. “As technology and media change, the ability to think critically transcends mediums,” says Chiara. “Teaching your kids this essential skill prepares them for a lifetime of knowledge, no matter how the information ecosystem evolves.”
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