It’s critical to be critical in the digital age

Children and young people today are growing up in a globalised world. The rise of digital and social media is transforming their experience of news and demanding them to process information from a wider variety of sources than ever before.

A 24-hour rolling news cycle is flooding children’s lives with news every minute of every day — via their phones, online, through apps, on social media and on TV and radio.

In contrast to when I was a child, today’s young people are not only consumers of news, but they are also creators, curators and communicators of it. Just as rapidly as the digital news environment is changing, so too must the skills our young people need to navigate, participate in and survive it.

To make sense of the avalanche of information available to children online, they must have strong critical literacy skills. By looking at the news through a critical lens, children learn to decipher the messages in it, identify the author’s agenda or bias, and interrogate the points of view represented. Armed with these skills, children can more confidently judge the trustworthiness of online information and, in turn, spot misinformation and fake news.

We know what skills children need, but until today, we didn’t have a clear picture of whether children the UK actually have them. A survey carried out for the final report of the Commission on Fake News and the Teaching of Critical Literacy Skills in Schools found a staggering skills gap — with only 2% of children and young people able to tell the difference between real and fake news.

National Literacy Trust graphic (2018)

Over the past year, the commission — which is run by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Fake News and the National Literacy Trust — has been exploring the impact of fake news on children and young people in the UK, looking specifically at whether children have the literacy skills they need to spot fake news when they come across it.

The commission found that fake news, and children’s inability to identify it, is driving a culture of fear and uncertainty amongst young people which, in turn, is harming their well-being, increasing anxiety levels, damaging self-esteem and skewing their world view.

Fake news is clearly having a devastating impact on children and young people’s lives, but we know that by giving them the requisite skills to navigate information in a post-truth era, fake news will lose its power.

Children want more time and opportunities at school and home to talk about news that is relevant to their lives. They also want to know how the news is made and how fake news comes into circulation. But a lack of support for teachers and parents is prohibiting this.

Teachers have a particularly important role to play in helping children learn how to spot fake news but only 6% of children ever go to their teachers to talk about it. What’s more, half of teachers (54%) say the National Curriculum doesn’t equip children with the critical literacy skills they need to spot fake news and a third (35%) don’t think the critical literacy skills taught in schools are transferable to the real world.

The Government and media companies have a tremendous opportunity here to effect massive change. They should be taking steps to afford teachers more time in the curriculum for children to discuss news that is relevant to their lives, as well as provide resources to facilitate these conversations. Teachers also need more training to develop their teaching of critical literacy skills for the digital age and expert support in the classroom to help children gain a deeper understanding of the news and how it is made.

Failure to act on this critical issue will not only jeopardise the well-being and democratic futures of children and young people in the UK, but will also undermine society’s trust in the news and governance — which could have dire consequences for generations to come.

The National Literacy Trust has published a series of brilliant fake news resources, activities, guidance and posters for teachers, families and young people which are free to download.