Help your children understand what’s on social media

“Do you know where your children are?” That was the question a public service announcement asked a few decades ago to parents who were watching TV at night.

Well, here’s a new question we should be asking parents, “Do you know what your kids are being exposed to on social media?”

{mosads}Even if your children are not following politicians or news outlets, they are connected with friends, family, celebrities, and brands who are weighing in on some of the most politically divisive issues of our time.


Politics is part of the conversation

Consider Stephen Colbert’s controversial monologue, which he delivered on his late-night show regarding Donald Trump’s presidency. It was so crude that the FCC investigated whether CBS should be fined for it.

Yet, while the FCC considered whether it was too indecent for network TV, it had already been shared and viewed millions of times on social media. Of course, it’s not just the video clip either — there were the unfiltered, vitriolic comments that accompanied it, too.

Then there are the family and friends. A child in middle school who is friends with her uncle on Facebook may not understand why the United States is letting “terrorists flood into this country to kill us all.” Or why a classmate tweeted that his “mother is going to die if they take ObamaCare away.”

These are all complex, nuanced issues that have even well-informed adults struggling to make sense of — imagine what it must be doing to a child’s perception of the world.

Consider the source

Not all information is equal, and that is especially true on social media. A news feed could have a story from a credible news outlet, a ranting post from a neighbor, a fake news article from a conspirator, and “sponsored” content from an advertiser — all appear one after another.

There is a sizable percentage of adults in the country who are suffering from information overload. For many, fact and fiction are hard to parse out.

And there are some ominous signs about our future generation’s media literacy. Just look at the Stanford University study of 7,804 students from middle school through college that found that 82 percent of middle schoolers could not distinguish between sponsored content (an advertisement) and a real news story.

What can parents do?

This is not to say parents need to ban social media. It means parents need to be more proactive in addressing how children process what they view on it.

“It can’t just be about accessing [information], it has to be about understanding it,” says Michelle Ciulla Lipkin, executive director of the National Association for Media Literacy Education.

Ciulla Lipkin suggests that parents ask their children questions at every opportunity, and don’t just make it about social media.

Did you just watch a movie with your child? Ask your kid if they think every side of the story was represented? Ask them how the movie made them feel? What techniques were used to make them feel that way?

Or talk about that song that they like. Who were the main characters in the song? Who told the story? Could there be another side to what was sung?

Parents need to make children think critically about every piece of information they process. This way, when they come across content on social media, it will be second nature for them to think objectively and make better sense of what they are consuming.

The future is not grim

On the surface, it may seem that letting our children roam free on social media is the equivalent as giving them a carton of cigarettes to smoke. How could social media possibly be good for them?

“Kids have a voice. Their voice is important,” says Russell Kahn, editor-and-chief or News-O-Matic, a daily news source just for kids.

As Kahn sees it, social media gives children the chance to be engaged citizens. They can learn about issues that affect them, and talk about it with peers in the digital space.

Context is king — and that’s why Kahn thinks students must have credible places they can visit to learn about issues first. He created News-O-Matic for just that reason. He does not believe it is a parent’s sole responsibility to discuss every world issue with their child. Instead, he thinks adults should teach their children how to rely on credible resources. This way, when a child sees a story on social media that seems like it could be made-up, or they read something from a family member that scares them, the child can fact-check it with trusted information and put it in context.

“As grown-ups, we underestimate them,” Kahn says. “They are much more perceptive than we give them credit for. They care. And not just about the animal stories.”

Adam Chiara is an assistant professor of communication at the University of Hartford. He has worked as a legislative aide in the Connecticut General Assembly, as a journalist, and as a public relations practitioner. You can find him on Twitter at @AdamChiara.

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