Guest column: Teach youth media literacy

Recent studies illustrate the dire — and growing — importance of teaching young people media literacy, writes Roger Plothow.

Two of the worst contradictory terms to emerge with the internet are “smart phones” and “social media.”

Cell phones make us dumber and chatting online is anything but a social experience. These truths were made more evident in recent research by Stanford University.

“Many people assume that because young people are fluent in social media, they are equally perceptive about what they find there,” said Professor Sam Wineburg, the lead author of the report and founder of the Stanford History Education Group. “Our work shows the opposite to be true.”

Consider these three paragraphs from a summary of the research:

“The scholars tackled the question of ‘civic online reasoning’ because there were few ways to assess how students evaluate online information and to identify approaches to teach the skills necessary to distinguish credible sources from unreliable ones.

“The authors worry that democracy is threatened by the ease at which disinformation about civic issues is allowed to spread and flourish.

“‘Many of the materials on web credibility were state-of-the-art in 1999. So much has changed but many schools are stuck in the past,’ said Joel Breakstone, the director of SHEG, which has designed social studies curriculum that teaches students how to evaluate primary sources. That curriculum has been downloaded 3.5 million times, and is used by several school districts.”

It’s hard enough for well-educated adults, who (ostensibly) were taught about civics before there was an internet. But imagine the challenge for young people who today live in a world in which the internet really isn’t even a thing – it is an intrinsic part of their world 24/7.

Most students can’t even tell the difference between news content and a paid advertisement (and that’s mostly because many web sites are trying to fool us intentionally).

“Another assessment had middle school students look at the homepage of Slate. They were asked to identify certain bits of content as either news stories or advertisements. The students were able to identify a traditional ad — one with a coupon code — from a news story pretty easily. But of the 203 students surveyed, more than 80 percent believed a native ad, identified with the words ‘sponsored content,’ was a real news story.”

New research shows that teens who spend just an hour a day on social media makes them miserable. United Kingdom-based IZA Institute of Labor Economics funded research at the University of Sheffield that reached this astonishing conclusion:

“ … spending more time on social networks reduces the satisfaction that children feel with all aspects of their lives, except for their friendships; and that girls suffer more adverse effects than boys. As well as addressing policy makers’ concerns about the effects of digital technology on children, this work also contributes to wider debates about the socioeconomic consequences of the internet and digital technologies more generally …”

Do we need any more reason to take greater care in monitoring how our children interact with the Internet, and is there any greater motivation to make media literacy a part of our school curriculum?

Roger Plothow is Editor and Publisher of the Post Register. This is the latest weekly installment of a year-long series on news and media literacy.