Literacy has been at the core of every child’s education for centuries. Media literacy, however, is only just beginning to be part of the curriculum discussion. Defined as the ability to contextualize, analyze, and create content in different forms (everything from newspapers and TV to gifs, memes, Tweets, and Instagram stories), media literacy is an essential part of how children understand and interact with technology. Much like learning the ABCs, media literacy provides kids with base skills and knowledge that can be built upon as they grow up — it’s especially important given the fact that kids today are growing up in a digital-first world.

Much of today’s most popular media are littered with fake news and advertisements, so the responsibility falls to the user (yes, even kids) to be actively aware of their online content consumption. The good news is that even young children can learn to think critically about the world around them — all they need is a little bit of guidance.

1. Talk to your kids about the media they consume

Kids are like sponges — they pick up information in many different ways, from playground conversations to YouTube videos. If they see a friend playing Fortnite or stumble on a video with explicit language, you should be ready to talk about it. Ask questions (more on this below), encourage them to debate their opinions, or have them write a synopsis of what they learned from viewing a particular piece of media. Creating a safe space for kids to talk about their experiences is key to understanding how they understand the media.

2. Encourage your kids to ask questions about the media

Children who grow up in a digital-first world may be inclined to believe everything they read online, much like they believe that Sam-I-Am really does eat green eggs and ham. Part of this can be attributed to human nature; until critical thinking kicks in, our brains are wired to believe the information we read, which is why it’s important to help your kids develop these skills while they’re young. Rather than teaching kids to accept a piece of media at face value, teach them to assess sources, cross-reference information, and avoid dangerous clickbait (does a story seem too good — or too crazy — to be true?).

According to MediaSmarts, there are several big questions for kids (and adults) to ask about online media, including:

  • Who created this media product?
  • What is its purpose?
  • What assumptions or beliefs do its creators have?
  • How might different people see this media product differently?
  • How does this make you feel?

Instead of allowing kids to simply accept that the information they see online is complete and correct, parents should encourage kids to question the creator’s motivation and their own emotional response.

Show your kids how fake media is created

3. Show your kids how false media is created

Manipulated images (from memes to YouTube videos) are difficult to recognize, something one young boy learned at a Harford County Public Library in Maryland. With the help of a librarian, he used photo-editing software to create an image of himself holding a snake (something he had never seen or touched in real life). The boy was thrilled by the final product but he also learned a valuable lesson about how a photograph can be manipulated and made “real” with just a computer, printer, and a little bit of imagination. It’s this kind of transparency that kids need to develop healthy skepticism of online images — you can start by showing them how Instagram and Snapchat filters can be used to skew reality.

4. Let your kids create their own media

Simply telling a child that something is fake, doesn’t always work — this blanket description doesn’t answer the what, why, who, or how of it. Learn from the librarian in the example above and give kids the chance to create their own content: let them film a weather report, create their own newspaper with an online template, or edit a video to change its context. Doing so may help deepen their understanding of fact vs. fiction — and how easily things can be published online.

It’s easy to understand why kids are so quick to believe everything they see online — fake (but authentic looking) websites and social posts are published everyday. And since it’s not likely that hackers or frauds will stop producing misleading content, it’s more important than ever for kids to understand the media and how it’s created. Luckily, there are several techniques that can be used to teach media literacy both at home and at school. So long as parents, teachers, and other adults take time to chat with kids about what’s good or bad, real or fake, the next generation will have the critical thinking skills they need to safely navigate each and every online environment.

Photo Credits: Alena Ozerova / Shutterstock, Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock, David Fuentes Prieto / Shutterstock, szefei / Shutterstock

Keep exploring