Digital Parenting: The Critical Thinking Skills Kids Need in The Age of Fake News

By Ben Halpert, Founder Savvy Cyber Kids, an EarthLink partner

These days information comes at us fast and furious. So quickly, that we easily come face-to-face with videos, articles, blog posts and websites that look real and feel authentic, but are fake or at least distorted. Too many of us  – no matter what our political leaning – have been victim to misinformation and have responded with falsely directed outrage. It’s not productive, and worse yet, can be dangerous.

Information that is rooted in truth, information that distinguishes fact from opinions, rumors, and lies, is vital for a healthy society. The all too real presence of fake news online, ads (that look like news) and news websites (that are not journalistic sources) are not the hallmarks of a society that rules for the people, by the people. Fake news creates the very real risk of allowing ourselves to be controlled by those who seek to color information to promote their own point of view or agenda.

As the song goes, ‘what the world needs now’…is critical thinking, the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue or information in order to form a judgment. A lot of what we read and see online is kind of accurate—but it’s not hard to end up believing something that is not exactly true. How many times have you seen statements as fact, when it is actually opinion or poorly-researched information? It happens all the time, right?

In the age of technology, we must take a greater personal responsibility in seeking out truthful information. As digital parents and digital grandparents, we must ensure that our children and grandchildren have the critical thinking skills to identify fake news. Here are some tips from Savvy Cyber Kids on teaching your children and grandchildren critical thinking skills.

READ TOGETHER: The goal here is not just to improve their literacy, but to develop their reading comprehension skills. Engage with them about what they are reading and ask questions. Give your children the opportunity to think actively, not passively, as they read. Talk about passages or plots that are challenging to them and help them figure out how they can gain knowledge to understand difficult concepts. Ask them to make connections in what they are reading, predicting how a story might end or making a comparison to something in real life. Invite them to summarize a section of a book or an entire story to identify the important themes. This can help you see what they do and don’t understand. You can also read newspaper articles and check facts together to show them how to use analytical and critical thinking skills.

ENCOURAGE THEM TO ASK QUESTIONS: ’20 Questions’ may not be your favorite game to play but it does allow children to conceptualize ideas and call out untrue or half-truthful statements. The child who asks ‘why’ (over and over again) is well on the path to excellent critical thinking skills! The goal here is to teach children to question what they read or hear. With older children, talk about sources of information. Is it a reliable news source or a tabloid , a personal blog or a lobbying website? Did they hear it from a classmate who has only heard it from someone else? The right questions can lead to discussions about the state of the world and all sorts of relevant topics.

MAKE THINKING A FAMILY AFFAIR: Use family time – during mealtimes, on long car rides, or while on trips – to encourage questions and problem-solving techniques. “What do you think of such-and-such?” Or, “What is your opinion on ____?” Invite open-ended discussion and don't let your own opinions drive these conversations.

GO DEEP: Find a topic that interests your child or grandchild, cultivate it and encourage them to read books, watch movies and research the topic.

TALK ABOUT RESPONSIBILITY AND CONSEQUENCE: Start a discussion about why sharing news on social media and elsewhere online may not be a good idea, can be polarizing and can have negative consequences. Remind them of the importance of not confusing their own opinions with fact and to pause before automatically sharing information online, before verifying its truthfulness.

Strong critical thinking skills can benefit young people immensely, improving reading comprehension and furthering their educational development. This will help them throughout their school years and beyond. Independent thinkers make better decisions. Encouraging this skill set in your children and grandchildren will develop a healthy critical mindset that allows them to think for themselves.

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Savvy Cyber Kids educates and empowers digital citizens, from parents and grandparents, to teachers and students. Sign up for their free resources to help you navigate today’s digital world with cyber ethics.