Learning the news: Parents are the first line of defense against false information

Parents are the first line of defense in teaching kids how not to be influenced by false information, writes Roger Plothow.

About half of all American children say following the news is important to them, but a similar percentage admit they can’t tell real news from fake.

Those findings from research done by Common Sense Media are both encouraging and a warning to parents and teachers. Children between 10 and 18 years of age generally are interested in being informed but find themselves surrounded by so many information sources that sorting the real stuff from the fake is daunting.

For those of us raised in earlier generations when information sources were both fewer and generally more reliable, it’s hard to imagine the challenges children face today. The same research indicates that children trust their parents and teachers more than other information sources, but they prefer to get their information via social media. We all know what that means – relying on social media for information is guaranteed to result in receiving and believing inaccurate information.

Nearly one-third of the children surveyed said they had posted false information in the past year, and there’s no telling how many others did it without realizing it.

“When you have … people at highest levels of government using terms like ‘alternate facts,’ then it’s a real challenge for young people,” Common Sense founder and chief executive James Steyer told Washington Post columnist Amy Joyce. “They have to learn … digital literacy. They have to think critically about the content they are consuming. Just because it’s on the Internet doesn’t mean it’s true.”

Indeed, the fact that it’s on the Internet actually makes it less likely to be true.

Parents are the first line of defense here, and that means they need to educate themselves first. Clearly, many adults struggle with deciphering fact from fiction in today’s media environment, so it’s hard to expect children to do any better. Teachers are the next line of defense, and they need both the training and the mandate to teach news and media literacy.

If we want to help the current generation of young media consumers to develop the skills necessary to thrive in a world of false information, we need to make it a priority. That’s not easy when our education system is both under-funded and must deal with conflicting mandates. Regardless, we can’t rely solely on the schools to address this problem.

As is true of nearly any social or cultural ill, addressing the proliferation of bad information and teaching children how to navigate the Internet cesspool must largely be done by parents and other adult family members. Grandpa and grandma, this means us, too.

Kathleen and I have four children and six grandchildren. Our grandchildren have the great fortune of having parents who understand the importance of media literacy. But judging by what my son, Jeremy, confronts among the seventh graders he teaches, an awareness of the need for media literacy is the exception, not the rule.

Plothow is editor and publisher of the Post Register. This is part of a yearlong weekly series on news and media literacy.