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Why you need to talk to your kids about media right now

Chad Sapieha | posted Friday, Mar 10th, 2017

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Kids are interested in following the news—but have a hard time discerning which stories are legitimate and accurate. These are some of the key findings in a new study undertaken by US-based Common Sense Media, a non-profit advocacy group that aims to educate families on the safe use and consumption of technology and media for kids.

The report, which collects the results of an online survey of nearly a thousand American kids between the ages of 10 and 18, found about half of the respondents believe news is important to them and can prepare them to make a difference in their communities. Seventy percent say paying attention to the news makes them feel smart and knowledgeable.

However, less than half (44 percent) said they think they can tell fake news stories from real ones. And nearly a third of the kids surveyed admitted to sharing an online news story  in the last six months that they later learned was false or contained inaccurate information.

This is a disheartening finding, but hardly surprising. As the dad of a news-hungry eleven-year-old who prides herself on being engaged in her community—she recently led a campaign in her Kitchener, Ont. school to send letters of support to indigenous communities in Saskatchewan after learning from the news of the suicide epidemic among these groups’ young people—I spend part of every day helping her digest what she sees on TV, hears on the radio and, most worryingly, what she learns from online sources.

Indeed, the study reports kids prefer getting their news from online sources (39 percent) as opposed to traditional media (24 percent) or even family members, teachers, and friends (36 percent). And the online sources they typically go to—tweens tend to use a mix of YouTube and Facebook, while teens rely primarily on Facebook—aren’t exactly known for providing reliable, well-vetted news stories.

The good news is that even though kids might prefer getting their news from dubious sources online, the research suggests that they still trust us parents the most. Fully two-thirds of the kids surveyed said they trust news coming from family members “a lot.”

That’s encouraging for parents like me, whose walks to and from school are often spent talking about and trying to make sense of what’s going on in the world. If my kid trusts me, then these conversations, in which we don’t just recount what we’ve heard but analyze and attempt to figure out whether people in power have taken appropriate action, will help her form a foundation for critical thought. This, in turn, could help lead to a healthy and pragmatic skepticism—the key tool we adults employ in distinguishing news stories and sources that are trustworthy from those that aren’t.

But perhaps the hardest part is simply figuring out whether or when to shelter our kids from certain types of news. According to the study, 63 percent of kids admit that the news can make them feel afraid, angry, and/or sad or depressed. Tweens in particular are more likely to feel frightened by the stories they see or read in the news.

We need to be there to provide support and reassurance when our kids see something on the news that scares them. When my daughter started hearing talking heads on TV speculating about how the results of the American election have potentially brought us closer to nuclear war, she was understandably afraid. I knew this because I was watching the news with her. And I was in the right place at the right time to provide some calming words.

That may be the biggest key in helping our kids navigate the often treacherous landscape that is modern news media. Be there with them. Help them to understand rather than fear the news. Teach them to spot false and purposefully misleading stories by showing them what to look for, which sites to trust and which reporters they can rely on.

We won’t always be there to steer them in the right direction, but we can set them on the path.

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