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When the news intrudes: Helping kids make sense of the media


Long before I worked on issues of digital citizenship, I worked as a Holocaust educator. Every day, I met with schoolchildren, working side-by-side with survivors.  Our aim was to talk with elementary schoolchildren about horrific events in ways that built empathy and resistance to racism and xenophobia, but without unduly traumatizing them or desensitizing them to images of violence.

Kids don’t know what’s real and what’s fake news. Here’s how parents can help.

In today’s media environment, we face similar issues daily with our children. Although I wasn’t ready to have a conversation with my 5-year-old about it, he saw the video of a police officer fatally shooting Walter Scott in North Charleston, S.C., in 2015. Once my son had seen that video, I had no choice. We had to talk about it in a way that he could understand just enough.

News travels quickly online. Parents need to understand that our kids will see some raw footage that hasn’t been edited, interpreted or contextualized. It’s best to be prepared so that we know how to react when the time comes.

Many of today’s parents watched or read the news with their own parents. Increasingly, as our kids get old enough to have phones and social media, or to simply be near them, they will see news in their social networks. And while news media might give more context to what kids are seeing, there are many more new outlets now, of varying quality. We need to teach our children to be discerning consumers of news.

The media environment can be a treacherous place for kids. From political news that’s hard to process to unedited violence on YouTube, it can be challenging for adults to handle. Imagine what it’s like for kids. Not to mention that the sheer media information load is staggering, with the barrage of new outlets that are always on, always competing for attention, and seemingly multiplying by the week.

Here are some ways to teach digital literacy to kids, and to help them understand what they are seeing.

  1. Open the conversation. Talk and listen to kids about what they are reading and watching. Share what you are reading as well. Try to put it into context for them. Offer perspective. For kids of all ages, if they are concerned about what they are hearing or reading, be sure they know they can talk with you about the news.
  2. Be proactive. With our country in what feels like a very tumultuous time, don’t let elementary-age kids watch or read the news on their own. They need help processing what they see, and we need to help our kids understand how to at least try to make sense of what they are hearing and how to move forward.
  3. Get specific. While sometimes it feels good to generalize while watching the news with other adults (e.g., “the world is going to hell”), we should be specific about our concerns with our kids. If we are anxious or concerned about the news in general, it is helpful to give reasons the news concerns you.
  4. Know your platforms. YouTube isn’t a curated media environment. Neither is Snapchat or Twitter. If you think that your kid might get curious about beheadings, police killings or other traumatic content, you should use these platforms with more parental mentoring and guidance.
  5. Expose the algorithms. For middle school and high school kids, introduce them to the concept of the “filter bubble.” Our searches and social choices feed algorithms about our preferences that make it more likely we’ll be shown news that confirms, rather than stretches, our view of the world. Use this graphic from the Wall Street journal to illustrate the point: Blue Feed, Red Feed.
  6. Teach skepticism. Advise them to look for terms like “sponsored content” and to turn on their skeptical brain when they read. But we should never make kids feel dumb if they are taken in by a fake news story. We want our kids to have healthy skepticism and to be aware of anyone who attempts to dupe them.
  7. Check sources. Teach kids to check out who produced a story and to consider how different sources might compare in terms of trustworthiness. Walk them through a fake news story and show them how to read critically, discern bias and detect manipulative techniques. Here are some good suggestions about how to do that.
  8. Create to understand. Encourage kids to share their experiences. Blogs are a low-barrier way to do this. Or maybe they can get involved with the school newspaper or TV station and get real training in student journalism. Help them understand the difference between simply sharing raw footage from a march or other event and doing a reported piece like a journalist would.
  9. Model limits. Parents need to make sure we are using the news in a healthy way. If watching the news is upsetting enough that it keeps you up at night, then model for your children not watching right before bedtime. This is  yet another reason to turn off the devices — or leave them off the nightstand, at least!
  10. Don’t share until you investigate. Rumors spread quickly online. Teach kids to look at the source and fact-check before they share something, especially something that could be alarming.
  11. Take an action. If one particular issue is concerning to your child, consider what concrete action you can take as a family. You may all feel less helpless and overwhelmed if you can donate winter coats to a newly arrived refugee family, for example. Another possibility: Some adults and their middle-school-age children are writing letters to their representatives.

Between wanting to be informed and the permeating torrent of media, it’s not realistic to shut it out of your child’s life completely. In teaching our kids good digital citizenship, we don’t want to do that anyway. With a little mentorship, we can help fight the incursion of fake news with what always defeats ignorance: knowledge.

Devorah Heitner is the founder of Raising Digital Natives and the author of “Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World,” a guide for mentoring digital kids. Her curriculum for grades four to eight is called Connecting Wisely in the Digital Age. She is delighted to be raising her own digital native.

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