Helping young people to be better readers of online content

The Internet and social media can be great sources of information, but that doesn't mean that all of it is accurate or trustworthy. In order to sort the good from the bad, parents have to help their teens build up their online media literacy.

Like adults, teens need the skills to be able to tell what information is credible and what isn't, when media or images have been manipulated and take the time to establish good habits such as not sharing things online that aren't true or can't be verified.

Tips for building media literacy

It's never easy to know right off the bat if the information you're seeing is credible. But as in the offline world, there are a few basic steps that you can take to help young people build up their sense of what is accurate and trustworthy and what isn't.

Let's start with the basics. Before engaging with or sharing a piece of content, help teens ask a few questions that could shed light on a piece of content – questions like the famous five Ws: Who? What? Where? When? And Why?

  • Who shared this content? Are they someone you know? How do you know them? If they shared it from another source, what is that source? The closer you can get to the original source, the more information you're likely to have about it.
  • What do other sources say? Before sharing anything, take a look around and see if you can find other reputable sources that say the same thing. Information that's corroborated by other, trusted sources, is more likely to be accurate.
  • Where is it from? News sources who are serious about their journalistic integrity will be transparent about where their information comes from. Working with your teen, check out a source's "about" page, if they have one and see how long they've been around for and whether their background gives you some reason to trust them.
  • When was it created? Sometimes old images, quotes or stories are repurposed in new ways, resulting in the spread of misinformation. Knowing when something was originally made helps give you context about it, providing a little more signal as to its credibility.
  • Why was it created? Think about the reason why a piece of content was created and shared. Some content is meant to keep us informed, others to make us laugh and some for no reason at all. If you can get a sense of the reasons behind why someone created a piece of content, it will help you know whether it's trustworthy or not.

All of these tips are just a start. It will take time for teens to develop a good sense of what information on the Internet can and can't be trusted. Get in the habit of spending time online with them and guide them to a place where they can use their judgment, on their own, to make good choices about what they read, create, engage with or share online.

More ways to help

In addition to gathering more context by asking the five Ws, there are a few more steps that you can take to help teens and young people develop the independent skill set for learning how to be a good media consumer online.

Keep the conversation going

Media literacy begins at home. It's not a one and done. It will take time and effort on the part of parents to help teens and young people work through the world of online information. It helps if this work involves them and feels more like a discussion. Talk to them about things such as:

  • Who do they follow online?
  • What kind of content do they see and share?
  • What skills do they use to evaluate the material they see?
  • What do they do when they see information that might be unreliable?
  • Do they take the time to think through a piece of content before sharing it?

Exercises in media literacy

Here's an exercise to perform with your teen in finding credible sources. This activity will help you practice verifying sources and information that you find online.

  • Try visiting a site or platform that you or your teen uses to find information.
  • Choose an article, blog, video or other piece of informational content to view together.
  • Apply the Who? What? Where? Why? analysis to that content and build up a framework for spotting credible information.

This is something that you can and should do together.

It'll take time, but with a little practice and your support, your teen can learn the kind of skills needed to be critical about the information they see online and help stop the spread of misinformation.

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