The rise of the internet and social media has exponentially expanded our access to information – and that includes information that’s false or misleading.
Add to that increasing political polarization, eroding trust in mainstream media and institutions, and a growing tendency to dismiss any information one doesn’t agree with, and it’s clear that media literacy – in particular, the ability to critically evaluate information online – has become a complex but vital subject for schools.
“We’re in the midst of the most profound information revolution in 500 years,” says Howard Schneider, the executive director of Stony Brook University’s Center for News Literacy. “Our children are growing up in a different world and they are not prepared for the consequences this change is presenting.”
A 2016 Stanford University study, for example, showed that high school students had a hard time distinguishing between sponsored content and news articles or determining the potential bias of social media messages. A more recent MIT study on the spread of false information on Twitter found that fake news stories were 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than true news stories.
“The consequences are so profound for students and society,” Schneider says. “My metaphor is that we need to inoculate every 11-year-old with an initial dose of news literacy before they leave middle school. We need to build their immunities against this flood of false information” and then continue to reinforce these lessons in high school.
But with only some schools teaching the subject and no national standards, it can be hard to know if your child is learning these skills. Here’s what to look for:
Who’s Teaching Media Literacy?
Media literacy education teaches students to think critically about media messages and to create their own media “thoughtfully and conscientiously,” according to Media Literacy Now, a nonprofit that works to expand the teaching of this subject nationwide.
High schools typically teach some form of media literacy in either a social studies or an English/language arts class, says Erin McNeill, the organization’s president and founder. But she and others call for lessons to start earlier. Many students get a smartphone by middle school, giving them the ability to not only create their own content, but to see and share a wide variety of information.
A 2021 study of media literacy programs in Rhode Island found that only 1 in 3 middle schools were teaching the subject, despite a 2017 law requiring the state education department to “consider incorporating media literacy education” into the board of education’s program regulations. Only 1 in 5 elementary schools in the state teach children about the impact of advertising, the study found.
Illinois recently became the first state to require media literacy education, although only in high school. While the number of high schools tackling this subject is increasing, McNeill says, the percentage is hard to quantify because media literacy isn’t typically a stand-alone course.
“There’s no tracking for schools and districts,” says Michelle Ciulla Lipkin, the executive director of the National Association of Media Literacy Education. “It’s frustrating because there are a lot of amazing practices, but it is in no way a national priority.”
Stony Brook University has created a media literacy program for high schools and is working with six pilot school districts to make the subject a requirement for every student. “To me, that’s a home run,” Schneider says. “But the pace of change is still way too slow. Curriculum is hard to change.”
What’s Being Taught?
The easiest way to begin to understand what your child’s school is doing is to ask, says McNeill. Find out what your child’s teacher or school thinks of media literacy and what is being taught.
For instance, Schneider says he knows a second-grade teacher who introduces this topic while teaching, of all things, the story of the three little pigs. After she reads students the fairy tale, she asks them what is missing. Then they read the 1996 picture book “The True Story of the Three Little Pigs,” which retells the familiar tale from the wolf’s point of view. Students learn that who narrates a story is important.
Parents should not only ask what schools are teaching, but what standards teachers are using and how officials know these lessons are effective, Schneider adds.
Don’t despair if you don’t like the answers you receive, says McNeil – it can be a process to improve curriculum. “From the grassroots, we can really make a lot of changes.”
What Does a Good Media Literacy Program Look Like?
A good media literacy program will be reinforced through multiple grade levels, beginning in middle school, Schneider says. It starts by teaching students how to ask good questions and become interrogators of, rather than consumers of, information. By the end of middle school, students should be able to read laterally, meaning they can use the internet to check the veracity of news they see online.
In high school, students should study the difference between fairness, balance and bias and test out their theories in discussions with classmates. They should demonstrate mastery of these topics in a culminating project, Schneider says.
And McNeil says schools should be sure to also teach “digital citizenship skills” so students can not only understand the impact of what they are creating, but also learn to be “responsible, safe, and kind” online.
Rachel Kelsh, a social studies teacher from Hampton Bays High School on Long Island, is one of the teachers piloting Stony Brook’s program. Every week her students examine current events using different news sources. She uses this time to not only explain why some stories are reliable and others aren’t, but also to teach about the idea of an echo chamber, and how some people carefully choose their news only from sources that share their political bent. She also explains how social media algorithms work – for example, how liking something on TikTok means you’ll be shown more of that type of content.
Her district hopes to build out its program so that students are taught media literacy for some part of every year from fifth grade to graduation, she says.
She likens students’ skills to a toolkit that they can use whenever they see information online. And she hopes to add a component where students show parents what they are learning and how they vet different pieces of information.
“We’d like to include parents more,” she adds. “They are a crucial piece.”
How to Help Boost Your Child’s Media Literacy
Ultimately, Lipkin says, parents need to understand how their children process the information they see online. “Are they asking questions and using evidence-based resources?”
In fact, parents can be effective using only one question with their kids, according to Schneider: “Who said?” For instance, many students say they get news from TikTok or YouTube. So Schneider will explain that while they are getting news through those sites, the information is coming from whoever posted the video, not from the app hosting the content.
If parents want to go to the next level, he recommends gamifying the practice of media literacy. “Send a viral video to everyone in your family and say, ‘Let’s decide if this is real or not,’” he suggests. Then you can teach your children how to verify information by consulting other sources. In some cases, his college students tell him that they use what they have learned to teach their parents the same skills.
Media literacy is a key 21st century skill, advocates say, and its importance will only increase. “It’s not going away after the election or after COVID,” says Schneider.