As many of you know, I’ve been working for the past couple of years on youth internet health and education issues. While the stereotype is that younger = tech savvier, that’s not strictly true. Younger kids may be better acquainted with the internet, may use it more, and may feel more comfortable with it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they have the cognitive skills or experience to differentiate between manipulative content, unreliable content, and good content.

How many of you, as adults, have been tricked into clicking on a deceptive banner ad that looked like genuine content? How many of you have started reading a site, only to realize after 30 seconds or so that it’s a biased advocacy job thinly disguised as objective fact?

The online environment has wreaked havoc on the signals we traditionally used to assess the accuracy of information – the reputation of the speaker, the magnitude of publisher investment in disseminating the material, the basic design features we associate (justifiably or not) with reliable content. That’s good, in that many unheard voices can now make themselves known (w00t, bloggers!) But it’s also a tricky environment for adults, much less three-year-olds who wander off Club Penguin into the wilds. That’s why online literacy has to be an important part of education.

If any of you know of any good initiatives to study, improve or assess online literacy, please leave a link in the comments on this post. And if you know of any with a safety component, consider directing them to this Call for Descriptions of Online Safety Programs from Harvard’s Berkman Center.

Personally, I think critical thinking skills = safety = preparation for a quality science education. So what are we (bloggers, scientists, writers, the internet community) doing about it right now? Let me know. . .

Pew Internet & American Life Project
Kaiser Family Foundation
MacArthur Foundation Digital Media & Learning
Berkman Center Youth & Media Policy Initiative


  1. #1 Coturnix
    December 2, 2009

    The problem is that so many people, adults and kids, took the authority of traditional outlets for granted, never questioning it. Just because it is in a book, or newspaper, or radio, does not mean it should be trusted. Which is why media literacy problem is not a new thing, brought about by the Web. It was always a problem. A website may look like a traditional, trustworthy source. But why assume that the traditional source was trustworthy in the first place? WMDs in Iraq….

  2. #2 Jason R
    December 2, 2009

    Two blogs that regular touch on this are Will Richardson’s and Stephen Downe’s.

  3. #3 Jill Bedford
    December 2, 2009

    I have worked in both high school and university libraries. Even at a high school level – this type of site assessment is really difficult.
    My husband and I have had a computer since the late 80’s and we partitioned the hard drive for the kids. They have been on the computer since they’ve been 3 but they couldn’t access anything except the stuff we put on for them.
    I would suggest that students do direct hands on research for school until they are in grade 4 or 5; then start them with books until grade 10. They have to have enough background knowledge to even start to make assessments of sites & until then they don’t really know what’s good and what’s not. Teachers currently recommend google or wikopedia as valid sites for research in the early grades & this leads to future problems (my daughter emailing me in 1st year university to ask if a prof could really drop her mark a full grade if she used wikopedia).
    Having full time librarians at the elementary school level would also help.

  4. #4 Karen Mason
    December 4, 2009

    Your concerns directly hit the mark on why the virtual world of Club Penguin contains neither third party advertising nor links to any other websites. Young children are unable to discern the difference between online advertising and other web-based content, and Club Penguin works hard to maintain a safe and fun online environment. But prohibiting third party ads, using word filters and employing on-site moderators are just the first steps. We believe it’s critical parents take the lead in educating themselves in order that they can effectively educate their children in how to stay safe online and we work in partnership with parents in our shared efforts to ensure children develop into literate digital citizens.

    Karen Mason – Disney Online Studios (Club Penguin)

  5. #5 HP
    December 6, 2009

    What Coturnix said. How many of you, as adults, have been tricked into reading a “special report” in Time or Newsweek (or National Geographic, for that matter) that was eight pages of thinly disguised advertising? How many of you have started reading a major newspaper, only to realize after 30 seconds or so that it’s a biased advocacy job thinly disguised as objective fact? *coughJudithMillercough*

    The Web as we know it didn’t even exist until I was 30 years old, but I learned critical reading skills in my teens. I don’t think I’ve ever unknowingly clicked on a banner ad, and the only time I was briefly fooled by advocacy was that time someone I trusted linked to that awful Memeorandum.

    The problem is that many adults still regard print sources as authoritative, in contrast to the web — when print sources have never, at any time ever in history, been inherently objective or trustworthy.

  6. #6 Jessica Palmer
    December 7, 2009

    HP, you and Bora both misrepresent, or perhaps misread, what I said. I didn’t argue that there was no misleading content before the internet. Obviously, there was, and continues to be, misleading traditional media. That’s why we needed the strategies I mentioned to evaluate media credibility – and as I noted, not all of those strategies picked up on the right signals.

    However, I do argue what I think is a pretty darn obvious conclusion, that in traditional media there was less fringe content (because of higher barriers to publishing), the modes in which it was presented were more homogeneous/familiar, and it was less accessible to youth. Critical thinking skills have always been important – no duh. But as you yourself say, “I learned critical reading skills in my teens.” EXACTLY.

    That’s the point of the post – that younger children are being exposed to more content than ever before, when they have not yet obtained the critical thinking skills necessary to deal with it. The correct comparison here is not between the amount of biased content an adult encountered in the 1985 versus 2005, but in the amount of biased content a child routinely encountered at those times. I don’t know what world you lived in, HP, but as a child, I got to read/view what my parents brought home, what was in the school and public libraries, the books I bought myself (at local stores), and what I saw on the television channels my parents (or my friends’ parents) paid for. That was all I had access to, and it was pre-filtered for safety and credibility fairly well, although I occasionally encountered random conspiracy theories and nutjobs, which posed practical lessons in critical thinking. (Fox News is good for something). But today, kids are exposed to the same information adults are – they just have to go online. So the relevant question is not “does this material fool you, an adult, longer than five seconds?” but “would this material fool a child?”

    The challenge I’m posing is how can we start teaching critical thinking earlier, in ways that are directly relevant to the types of information kids are likely to find on the internet, so they have the tools they need to engage in self-directed learning ASAP. If you don’t think that’s an important question, I have no idea where you’re coming from. Alternatively, if you think that your overt agenda of portraying traditional media as biased to the point of worthlessness is so all-important that you’re willing to claim that educators cannot possibly have any additional challenges to face post-internet, then you go right ahead. I disagree. And I’m interested in what educators have to share about the challenges they’re facing, and how we can help, not in arguing about a milieu that has ceased to exist.

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