By DQ Team 12/11/2018
Topics: Critical Thinking, Parenting Tips, DQ TOP Rules, DQ Parents’ Handbook
“Ever reached out to comfort a friend after seeing a distressed Facebook or Instagram post only to learn they’ve posted sarcastically? Online, so many of our interactions are at the mercy of Poe’s Law: that without some form of emoticon or display of humour, it is difficult to know if someone is being serious or satirical.
Nonetheless, our ability to understand messages that we receive online has never been more important: we’ve become so reliant on tidbits of information and messages transmitted and received through our smart devices. Be they missives exchanged with friends or family, networking opportunities with potential co-workers, or sites that we peruse for information, entertainment, or news. At the same time, the media that we consume is increasingly multimodal – ranging from texts (messages, comments, status updates, blogposts); to visuals (images, GIFs, videos, games); to audio (voice or video messages, podcasts).
Critical thinking lies at the heart of all this communication. Media literacy, as education scholar and digital media literacy expert Renee Hobbs says, is the “active inquiry and critical thinking about the messages we receive and create.”
This month, we’ve narrowed down this discussion of critical thinking to online strangers and fake news. Two particularly noteworthy topics when it comes to children’s online lives. At a time where our experience of being online seems to be increasingly skewed by the presence of bots, content manipulators, and hate speech, developing one’s discernment will enable you and your child to safely and responsibly navigate the Internet – and give you a peace of mind when you leave them to their devices.
Talk: What does it mean to practice critical thinking online?
Online interaction can be tricky. On one hand, online strangers are often harmless if not potential friends who contribute to your child’s understanding of the interconnected and global nature of the internet. At the same time, at a point in time where children as young as 8 may already own a smartphone, some studies suggest that their exposure to those who may mean them harm may similarly be increasing.
As you approach the issue with your child, keep in mind that the most effective deterrence of harm is not restricting your child’s use of digital media, but the buildup of trust between you and your child. The goal here is ensuring that your child is aware of both the benefits and dangers of talking to strangers online, is able to recognise suspicious behaviour, and will turn to you for help when they do. Of course, much of their ability to recognise warning signs will vary based on their age and maturity. For younger kids, we suggest keeping an eye on their online interactions and keeping their online interactions to people that they know in real life.
As your child grows older, this will undoubtedly become impractical – and might even strain your relationship with your child – as they begin expecting some form of privacy and independence. This is the perfect time to bring that age-old playground knowledge (“Don’t take candy from a stranger!”) into their digital navigations.
To start the conversation, we’ve compiled 12 warning signs of stranger danger:
- Asks about personal info
- Tells you not to trust others
- Tells you to distrust your parents
- Makes you feel bad
- Persuade through manipulation
- Threatens to end the friendship
- Requests photos
- Wants to meet in secret
It will do little good for your child to just memorise these signs without understanding why they might be suspicious. Just like how role-playing can be a great tool for children to understand how and why cyberbullying might occur, it can be a useful tool here as well: enabling children to understand the difference between positive and nurturing relationships and negative and harmful ones.
Next, let’s look at how you can help your child become active media consumers. Back in 2016, Oxford Dictionaries named the term ‘Post-truth’ as their word of the year. While the problem of ‘fake news’ isn’t as new as some may think, the speed at which we receive information through our social feeds is. For children, this means that the ability to recognise false, exaggerated, and sponsored content is ever more important. Media scholar Jacqueline Vickery writes,
“Learning with media requires us to help students think critically about media in a holistic approach and to critically question aspects of media such as production, audience, commercialisation, power, representation, and the values embedded within the everyday webpages and search results that they encounter.”1
At its core, information literacy is really about understanding how and why messages might be constructed: think about the last advertisement you’ve seen – what is it selling? Who might it be aimed at? Do you feel compelled to spend more of your time/money on it? Why?
Simply asking these questions will go a long way. For example, in their research on the effects of discussion-based parental mediation, researchers found that parents who question the assumptions packed into messages (e.g., “drinking helps me make friends”) and are able to reveal techniques of persuasion aided their child’s alcohol-related decision-making2.
In handling both online content and contacts – the act of talking to your child about what they observe can be incredibly effective. Whether it involves the content of their Instagram feeds, or the types of behaviours they might be picking up on Fortnite – talk to them about the types of messages that they may be receiving online. This develops a healthy dose of scepticism that can be instructive for them to differentiate between harmful and helpful online experiences – enabling them to deal with both content and contacts that they may be encountering online.
Obey: When Online, Practice Vigilance
Vigilance online means approach interactions and content with an open mind but a healthy dose of scepticism. When it comes to online strangers, there are countless examples of online communities and friendships providing a safe space for children to grow into themselves. As our lives get ever more digitized, digital relationships – platonic or otherwise – will become increasingly common: keeping up with your child on their friendships can be a healthy way to addressing online friendships formed.
Practicing vigilance online means approaching interactions and content with an open mind but a healthy dose of scepticism. When it comes to online strangers, there are countless examples of online communities and friendships providing a safe space for children to grow into themselves. Digital friendships and communities will undoubtedly become even more common in the years ahead. If your child has cultivated a positive, healthy, and nurturing friendship with an online friend and wants to meet them in real life, encourage them to practice the following:
- Tell trusted adults and friends about the details of the meeting – who are you meeting, where will it be, and at what time?
- Meet your friend in a public place and bring along a trusted friend or adult
- Never follow this person into a private location – such as a car or house
To enhance your child’s critical thinking around media content, teach them how to fact check online information against reliable sources. Here’s a simple 3-step guide to get you started:
- Doubt – Ask, “could this information be false”? Why?
- Search – Check the information against two other reliable sources
- Verify – Do these other sources align with or refute the information?
Reliable sources are often websites run by universities, major news establishments, or official government sites. The questions above apply to both images that you might come across on social media sites like Twitter and Instagram, and even to advertisements, where the question might be adapted to “What project/lifestyle/attitude am I being sold?”.
Remember, this form of interrogation doesn’t (and shouldn’t) be a chore for your child. Instead, if approached as a family endeavor – take turns fact checking and share what you’ve found! – you can easily model this behaviour for your child: enabling them to pick up the habit and recognise that there tend to be similar characteristic to dubious sites and types of false information. Not to mention, this also constantly keeps you on your toes to how the presentation of false, sponsored, or exaggerated content might change across different digital platforms.
Play: Spot the Lie
Games are a great way to challenge children to develop these forms of critical thinking: often, they provide a means for children to draw interferences between what they know and the information presented to them at hand. For this month, play the game of ‘Two Truths, One Lie’ with your child:
- Player A comes up with two facts and one lie about themselves, and lists them out for Player B
- Player B has to guess the lie
Consider the game above: while some lies may be easier to spot – “I dyed my hair red yesterday!” – lies that are close to the truth – “I played soccer 3 times last week” – are more difficult to parse out. Vary the difficulty of the game in accordance with your child’s age! This not only develops their capacity for recall, but would be a great lesson for how and why misinformation and disinformation spreads so easily online.
As with other habits and skills that we’ve covered in this series, critical thinking is a skill that needs to be nurtured over time. The beauty of critical thinking is that it reminds us constantly that as adults we’ve still got much to learn. Keeping an eye out for the content that your child might be consuming – whether by asking them to teach you how to play their favourite online games, or learning to navigate Instagram stories – also means learning together with your child about how the digital world is evolving.
This is the eighth in a series of nine posts that the DQ Institute is publishing for parents and caretakers to help you inculcate healthy and responsible digital habits for you and your family. If you’ve found these tips helpful, you can find more in our previous post on taking steps towards ensuring your family’s cyber security. Otherwise, check back next month for our final post on developing digital empathy!
1. Vickery, J. R. (2017). Worried about the wrong things: Youth, risk, and opportunity in the digital world. MIT Press.
2. Radanielina Hita, M. L., Kareklas, I., & Pinkleton, B. (2018). Parental Mediation in the Digital Era: Increasing Children’s Critical Thinking May Help Decrease Positive Attitudes toward Alcohol. Journal of health communication, 23(1), 98-108.