The kids are all right, but parents just don’t understand media literacy

Are we educating the wrong generation?

Do a quick search of “media literacy education” and most of the organizations and guides you’ll find are aimed at children and teens in a school setting, with a lot of talk about TV, books, radio, movies, and “the internet.”

Do a quick search of “fake news” and you’ll find a lot of adults talking at each other about how so many other voting-age adults were tricked into believing one thing or another about the potential leaders of the United States via Facebook.

You should glean two lessons from this: (1) we are hideously unprepared to educate today’s children on media literacy but, (2) luckily, educating them is not the issue.

I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t educate today’s and tomorrow’s children on the media and its effects. Of course we should. I think that media literacy and critical thinking should be the bedrock of education. And I’m sure there are teachers out there fighting the good fight on these topics today.

But if I could take every minute and dollar spent educating our youth on media literacy and, for a year or two, spend it on adults instead, I would do it in a heartbeat.

If you’ve ever plunked your way through an American education, you’ve undoubtedly come across an educator (or two, or ten) that were far behind the times, teaching from outdated books and using outmoded technologies. Now, think about the past ten — hell, five — years of technological advances. Then, imagine what it must be like to be a student in the age of Snapchat.

The U.S. education system is not built for speed. Adjusting a curriculum or teaching methods for the modern age must be incredibly difficult, requiring uncommonly agile teachers. And we already know we don’t provide our educators with an adequate support system. You don’t have to be an educator to see how unprepared we are to teach new media to kids born into a technological revolution unlike anything anyone alive has ever experienced before.

Luckily, though, the kids are all right. They spend all day absorbing media at a speed and volume the likes of which their parents and teachers have never seen. But that also means they understand its nuances better than their parents and teachers ever have. Innately.

Now, I don’t think that it’s a good thing, holistically, to grow up attached to a screen. But, in terms of learning to navigate history’s most complex media ecology, you’re damn right it’s effective.

Take The Knight Foundation’s recently released, “How Youth Navigate The News Landscape,” a qualitative research study based on focus groups conducted with teens and young adults in the summer of 2016. While some of its findings are concerning — sharing news online can negatively effect your reputation, boo — most of them made me very hopeful.

Some of my favorites:

Teens and young adults expressed widespread skepticism about the news and assume that much of the information they encounter may be inaccurate or biased. (Considering how much info they encounter, that’s probably true! And they’re thinking about bias and questioning accuracy!!)

News is “depressing,” but it is something you need to know. (Need to know? YES! And I mean, they’re not wrong about the depressing part.)

Teens and young adults often consult multiple news sources to verify the stories they encounter. (Most adults don’t even do this! Wahoo!)

A news source is considered more credible when its biases are known. (They can identify and then control for bias! They’re geniuses!!)

Remember: real, live adults allowed “fake news” to disrupt our media ecology. And these kids can identify bias, triangulate their sources, and don’t believe everything they read. And they learned it all with the poor education we gave them!

I’m getting a little excited here, but do you see why it’s the adults we have to worry about? They largely received the poorly supported (if earnest) education we were just lamenting, but at least back then it was about the technology they used. Then, suddenly, the media they relied on was turned on its head in just a few years. They didn’t get an introductory course. No on-ramp led the way into the new, LCD-screened world. We just let all the grown-ups on the internet, without supervision.

If anything, Generations Y and Z, the truly digitally native generations, should be teaching their parents about the media.

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