Get media savvy – 12 habits every family should adopt

Although young people are often seen as ‘digital natives’, they – like other age groups – struggle to tell fact from fiction online. Research by the National Literacy Trust and Ofcom tells us that:

  • Only 2% of young people have the skills to tell if a news story is real or fake.
  • Two in three teachers believe that so-called fake news is harming students’ well-being, raising anxiety levels and skewing their world views.
  • More than half of 12-15s rely on Google, YouTube or social media for ‘true or accurate’ news about serious things going on in the world.
  • One in five 8-15s believe everything they read on the internet is true.

But we can combat this by teaching our children the skills to judge if something is genuine or fake. Some of them are actually fun! Here are 12 simple habits to improve the whole family’s media literacy.

#1 Remember, seeing is not believing

Don’t automatically trust everything we see online. For example it’s very easy to generate highly realistic images of people who don’t actually exist. There are dozens of apps to convincingly swap faces, spoof text messages, fake your location or followers (to list but a few). These show how quick and easy we can be duped online.

Try this

  • Play ‘Which Face is Real?’ with family or friends. Go to www.whichfaceisreal.com and see who can tell which is a genuine photograph and which has been generated digitally.
  • Check out thispersondoesnotexist.com for thousands of examples of highly realistic computer-generated faces.

#2 Reflect on what you trust

We humans are vulnerable to misinformation because we tend to believe things that confirm what we already think, or because friends and people we like believe them. These are NOT good reasons to trust something!

Many of us rely on social media for news and information and although we might be sceptical about some stuff we read online, we aren’t teaching children how to know what they can trust. The danger is this can leave them distrusting everything and this generalised scepticism might actually leave them more vulnerable to misinformation.

Try this

  • Take time to reflect – with your family if you like – about what you trust and why. Are you more likely to trust something because it comes from a friend or because it lines up with something you already believe?
  • Consider what makes a source reliable. These 3 principles are simple enough to introduce to children from a young age:

Reliable sources:

  1. Go to the original source(s) or gather information first-hand themselves.
  2. Are careful with the truth: they check facts, report faithfully (rather than exaggerating or presenting a skewed perspective) and correct inaccuracies.
  3. Present information in a neutral, impartial and factual manner (rather than pushing a particular viewpoint or using emotive language).
  • If a source is unfamiliar, run a background check (see #9 below).

#3 Know how search engines rank results

Although most people rely on search engines (e.g. Google), surprisingly few of us have a good grasp of what determines how results are ordered.

Adverts always come at the top. Yet half of 12-15s can’t spot an advert on Google or other search engines (Ofcom) – even when it is labelled ‘ad’.

After the adverts, search engines prioritise the most popular and relevant results – but popularity and relevance do not necessarily signify quality or reliability.

Google’s own research tells us that half of searchers only check the top two results, and 9 out of 10 don’t look beyond the first page [for more on search engines see our blog The misinformation myths every school needs to bust].

Try this

  • Teach children that adverts always come top. After that, it’s popularity, but that doesn’t equal reliability – there is no human (or computer!) checking the results for accuracy.
  • Show them how to look beyond the top results by scanning results ‘snippets’ for relevant content and results from trustworthy sites.

#4 Know how to spot ads and sponsors

Ads are a big part of what we see online. By law, online advertising is supposed to be clearly labelled, however it is often very subtle and easy to miss. For example saying ‘thank you’ to a brand or including a #sp hashtag can be sufficient – often in tiny letters!

A recent Ofcom report indicated that two-thirds of 12-15s recognise that vloggers and influencers might be sponsored to say good things about products or brands, but many promotions are so discreet they aren’t recognised as such. That’s why it’s crucial that young people learn about advertising from an early age.

Try this

  • Get your family talking about the ways to spot ads and sponsorship on social media and online.
  • Spot and share examples of hidden advertising that you come across – including in emails, videos, games and memes.
  • Make a list of all the different ways advertising may be labelled e.g. ‘thank you’, promoted content, #sp, to indicate something is paid-for content. See more examples in our Clues for Spotting Advertising workshop resource.

[Find further ideas on this in our blogs Be Ad aware: 11 chats to have with your child and Teach your child to spot hidden advertising online.]

#5 Know your misleading media

More than half 12-15s rely on the internet for news so they need to know the different forms that misleading media can take. It’s not always factually incorrect, sometimes deceptive content paints a slanted picture, or makes a false connection.

Try this

  • Check out unfamiliar sites on Mediabiasfactcheck.com. This database features thousands of major websites with an overview of each including any biases, how they are funded and who owns them. It lists reputable scientific sources as well as questionable ones such as those promoting conspiracies, pseudoscience or satire.
  • Forewarned is forearmed, so familiarise your family with different types of misinformation [take a look at our handy misinformation definitions here]
  • When visiting news sites, ask yourself, do they fact-check the information BEFORE publishing? Do they correct mistakes?

#6 Choose your news. Don’t let it choose you

Don’t just rely on what shows up in your feed – algorithms prioritise popularity over accuracy which means that the stuff that rises to the top is more likely to be sensationalised, exaggerated or extreme.

Instead, find and follow a selection of credible sources (the ones that value truth, accuracy and fairness) and encourage your family to do the same.

Try this

  • Proactively add more reliable information sources to your phone and feeds so that you regularly see more trustworthy and less misleading information. (Look at #7 below for our suggestions).
  • Get involved with your kids’ newsfeed – guide your children towards factual, informative content, otherwise the vacuum you leave WILL get filled with stuff and nonsense! Show them how you curate your information sources. Good sites for primary-aged children include: The Week Junior, First News, NewsOMatic, Dogo News and BBC Newsround which all have apps and are free.
  • For older children try the BBC News app or MediaWise, a US-based organisation (with a network of teen fact-checkers) which can be followed on various social media platforms.
  • Finally, it’s good to talk to others about things that might be dodgy – show friends and family members posts, TikToks or memes you think are spreading misinformation, discuss what can be trusted and how to check what you see.

#7 Suspect the sensational

The internet has been dubbed ‘The Outrage Factory’ because there is serious money to be made from making us angry, afraid or disgusted. These kinds of extreme emotions get the most engagement (shares, comments etc.), so they get prioritised by the algorithms. This can give a distorted or overly negative view of the world.

Try this

  • Watch out for alarming words, emotive language, or name-calling. Pause before you share that blood-boiling post. Ask yourself: who is trying to make me feel this way – and why?
  • Beware ‘us’ vs ‘them’ thinking and look out for negative stereotyping – especially when it blames groups of people for social and political problems. This is a deliberate disinformation technique that feeds on people’s existing prejudices for maximum engagement.
  • Look out for ‘wedge’ issues – many disinformation campaigns seek out divisive topics (e.g. Brexit, Covid) to cause conflict and stir up hatred.
  • Include a mix of quality, more level-headed media in your feed. We recommend The Conversation, an independent publication written and reviewed by subject experts and Positive News is a great antidote to gloomy negativity and doom-scrolling.

#8 Be aware of what you are amplifying

When we engage with something online (by commenting, reacting or sharing), even if we are trying to debunk or disagree with it, the algorithm interprets the content as important and so it gets pushed up other people’s feeds.

Try this

  • If we want to correct some misinformation we’ve come across, use the truth sandwich – state the fact, debunk the lie without repeating it, then restate the fact. Make the truth, not the falsehood, the most vivid take-away.

#9 Fact-check the way fact-checkers do it

We want our children to be confident about what they see online, not worried they can’t trust anything. To do this, we need to teach them to look beyond the page they are evaluating in order to judge what’s genuine. That’s the way professional fact checkers do it – they literally open up new tabs on their computer and research laterally to find out more.

Why the fact-checkers?

Since 2016 Stanford University has been researching how different people evaluate online information and which groups are best at this. They’ve tested university students, history professors and professional fact-checkers. What they consistently found is that fact-checkers (the people who check whether news stories are correct before they are published or broadcast) are by far the best and the quickest. They are better than students (the ‘digital natives’) and academics (who we might think of as experts in evaluating sources).

Try this

When you come across information online, open up new tabs and consult the wider web to answer these 3 questions:

  1. Who is behind this information?
  2. What is the evidence for their claims?
  3. What do other sources say (about the organisation/author and their claims?)

#10 Check the original source

When evaluating whether information is reliable, it is vital to find where it came from so we can judge, a) if it is trustworthy (see #5), and b) if the original information has been accurately represented.

Try this

  • If there is a link in the text, click on it to find out more. If a story doesn’t link to a source at all – be sceptical.
  • If there is no obvious link to a source, run a keyword search to locate the original story. When you have identified it, ask: is this a trustworthy source? Has the story been accurately reported?

#11 Run a background check

It’s hard to know whether to trust an unfamiliar source, so here are some things you can do to check.

Try this

  • Search About + Name of website / organisation / author + then scroll through the results to see what other people/organisations are saying about them.
  • Search for the website / organisation / author using the News tab to see if they have featured in the news recently.
  • Search Wikipedia, it’s a great starting point for fast, condensed, up-to-date information and contrary to popular opinion, it has become a pretty reliable source. Thousands of human moderators and bots (automated computer programmes) constantly check and update content. Use Wikipedia for a quick summary, then dig into the references for more in-depth reading. For more on why Wikipedia have a look at our blog The misinformation myths every school needs to bust.

#12 Has someone already fact-checked this for you?

Fact-checkers are the experts at evaluating online information, so get into the habit of checking in with them – they may well have already done the hard work for you!

Try this

  • Add the words ‘fact check’ to a keyword search. This shortcut will show who has already checked a story, instantly giving you a wider view.
  • Add trustworthy fact checking sites to your social media feeds to keep abreast of major misinformation doing the rounds. We recommend Snopes, FullFact, C4 FactCheck, BBC Reality Check and First Draft CrossCheck UK. PicPedant and HoaxEye are fun for debunking fake images and attributing genuine ones.

Adopting these habits will help the whole family get more reliable information from the internet. As parents we can feel overwhelmed, but as with many things, we already have a lot of the skills – and can learn the rest – to teach even ‘digital natives’. Just as we wouldn’t expect them to be able to cross the road safely without being taught how to do it (offering repeated, gentle guidance over a number of years), we shouldn’t expect our children to navigate online information without showing them the way. Get involved, adopt these habits today and go digital native with your child.

Read next…

The misinformation myths every school needs to bust

What we’ve learnt…

Watch next…

Our co-founder, Shelley Metcalfe spoke recently at TEDx Macclesfield about the cost of careless clicks, how we are all part of the problem and what we can do about it. Watch the talk here.

[Photo thanks to Markus Winkler via Upsplash]