Fact or Fiction: Teaching information and media literacy skills

With today's news cycle moving at the speed of light and many relying on social media as a news source, it is more important than ever to ensure teenagers know how to decipher fact from fiction. In today's blog article, we've put together some guidelines to help instill information and media literacy skills in adolescents.

As a former journalist now working in corporate communications, I’ll willingly admit that I made the mistake of assuming my child would conveniently inherit and/or somehow absorb some of my own media and information literacy skills.

I hoped my son would innately question what he read, however, I realised this was not the case once he started spouting some extreme, and in my view distasteful, views.

I immediately started interrogating him, asking him what websites and social media posts he had been reading, had he cross-checked any of the claims and had he considered other attitudes (such as mine!)?

Or course it’s natural for teenagers to experiment with viewpoints that are different to those of their parents as they form their own identities. I did it myself.

What’s different now is that teenagers get a lot of news from social media. That’s a worry since most people scroll through their newsfeed and simply read the headlines or watch a short video clip of an item that takes their fancy, which often has a sensational hook. An average adult will read an article for only 15 seconds or less or watch a video online for 10 seconds. And I’m sure those timeframes are even less for the average teenage boy.

The desire to shut down my son’s social media accounts flashed through my mind. But while it’s still important to have some restrictions on social media use, I didn’t think shutting them down was a realistic option. Neither would it properly equip him for the big wide modern world.

However, allowing that freedom also means taking the time to check, question and discuss what your children are reading and following.

Part of this involves helping young people understand that good quality journalism on trusted sites involves fact-checking. And that on the flip side a lot of content on social media is designed to make people click on it to get maximum revenue from the ads on the site.

Parents can encourage kids to do their own fact-checking by verifying information through trusted news outlets.

Major factual news is often reported on more than one major news site, however, cross-checking is also about more than truth in numbers. As different sites report on events and claims from a range of angles, kids will gain a broader and more accurate perspective on an issue when they read, listen or view more widely.

Staying informed and media savvy as a parent is also important. And if you don’t know much about a topic your teenager is interested in, say you’ll find out about it together. Then sit down with them and model how to find out about a subject on reliable media sources.

Encourage your children to read past the headline, check author credentials, gauge the tone and language (is it emotive and/or flowery?), and identify biases (is only one side of the story presented?). It will take more time, but ultimately it will prevent them from looking ignorant in front of others who may point out their error and it teaches them sound research skills for school assignments. Most importantly it helps them develop vital critical thinking skills for life-long media consumption.

By learning to question what they see and read in the media adolescents will be able to think for themselves and not be shaped by what they see and hear online.

I’m really happy to report now that my son’s views have come full circle. What makes me happiest is that he has come to his own and now more compassionate conclusions based on his wider reading.

More information

News Literacy Project (NLP): a US-based nonpartisan national education nonprofit, provides programs and resources for educators and the public to teach, learn and share the abilities needed to be smart, active consumers of news and information and equal and engaged participants in a democracy.

Common Sense Media: An independent source of advice on media consumption for families. While it is US-based it does have resources that can be helpful for Australian parents including tips for helping kids deal with disturbing news, racism and violence reported in the media.