When it comes to social media, Internet-savvy kids are the stars of Snapchat, the titans of the tweet.
But in an era of the 24-hour news cycle and the advent of “fake news,” children and teens need more than a little guidance when it comes to navigating the world around them.
Consider this: According to Common Sense Media’s 2017 “News and America’s Kids” study, 31% of young people ages 10 to 18 shared a news story online only to find out it was inaccurate or misleading later on. A full 44% admit they can’t tell real news from its fake alternative.
It might not seem like such a big deal if they’re passing on information about Kim Kardashian’s latest baby names. However, today’s teens are tomorrow’s voters and making sure they are smart Internet and media surfers is key to preserving an informed electorate, according to educators tasked with helping kids suss out this brave new world.
“It’s no longer all about the five-paragraph essay,” Norwalk High School teacher Robert Karl says in regard to what his students need to master. “It’s a different world and they need to learn new ways to communicate.”
The Norwalk school system finds the issue so important that it has built a digital media communications academy to teach kids “21st-Century literacy,” explains Karl, a New Canaan native who teaches civics, AP Comparative Politics and journalism. Freshmen take a course in media literacy and the high school offers a variety of electives in journalism, digital storytelling, photography, film criticism, and more.
By junior year, students are taking advanced media and seniors master programs such as Dreamweaver and create their own websites. While learning to use new technology comprises much of the curriculum, issues of ethics, etiquette, and responsibility, and more than a few tips on identifying credible and biased sources, are key, Karl contends.
“They need to see the power to disseminate,” he states. “Thirty years ago, you would write a letter to one person or take a photo. Now they have access to the world.”
Media literacy is part of the digital citizenship classes New Canaan students attend in grades 5 through 8, explains Mary Hanna, K-8 social studies coordinator for the district’s schools. Teachers spend time helping children with their “sourcing skills” and helping them understand how news has been disseminated “from Paul Revere to today,” Hanna says.
Children are taught to think critically, asking questions such as, “Who wrote this? From what perspective are they speaking?” A class might look for loaded language in a news article or do a background check on the media outlet to see if it’s credible.
“To be an informed citizen, you need to be aware,” Hanna states.
Karl says he works with his students to understand that TV networks that were once more moderate have now become more openly biased to attract certain elements of a splintered viewing public. In class, they discuss the ways characterizations of political figures and even editing can reveal subtle and blatant biases.
Norwalk’s digital media communications academy also covers the topic of terms and agreements associated with apps and how being connected to social media isn’t always what it seems. For example, Karl says he chuckles when students tell him they believe Snapchat photos actually disappear and don’t live on somewhere in cyberspace.
“They own you,” he says of social media outlets.
New Canaan also emphasizes online and social media safety and privacy issues, Hanna says.
“What are they really doing when they click ‘accept’ ? It’s a little different than taking out a book a teacher said to read.”
The concept of fake news has had an effect on kids, according to the Common Sense Media report. While 70% of the 853 kids surveyed said reading or viewing the news made them feel smart and knowledgeable, only a quarter surveyed said they put “a lot” of trust in the information coming from news organizations.
Given our rapidly changing world, local educators say their media literacy curriculum is ever-evolving. In New Canaan, focus groups with students and input from parents and teachers help keep the program current. “We try to be as responsive as we can,” Hanna says.