Media literacy

If you want to figure out how the latest gadgets work or how to navigate Snapchat, Instagram or any one of the many social media sites, just ask a young person. I’m sure, if you’re of the baby boomer generation like me, you’ve had the experience of being totally technologically challenged by the latest state-of-the-art phone or tablet. We didn’t grow up with all of these electronics like today’s tweens, teens and millennials do.

But while young people — teens in particular — might be extremely tech savvy when it comes to a matter of surfing the web or operating a phone or tablet, getting a handle on what’s being fed to them via those same media is another story.

They still need help when it comes to discerning the information in this advanced, ever-changing information age, especially when it comes to real news, fake news and commercial content. So says a study by Stanford University, which is motivating one lawmaker to push for media literacy courses at the grade school and high school levels.

“The rise of fake and misleading news is deeply concerning. Even more concerning is the lack of education provided to ensure people can distinguish between what’s fake and what’s not,” said State Senator Bill Dodd, a Democrat from California.

Dodd is hoping media literacy will soon become part of the curriculum in California schools. His measure has cleared a key education committee vote. In his efforts to get the media literacy courses approved, Dodd continues to refer to the Stanford study that showed that youth, for the most part, are “duped by sponsored content and don’t always recognize the political bias of social messages.” The study authors say the results of their research should be yet one more media influence wake-up call not only for educators but for parents as well.

“Many people assume that because young people are fluent in social media they are equally perceptive about what they find there. Our work shows the opposite to be true,” said Sam Wineburg, the lead author of the Stanford report.

The researchers began their work in early 2015, well before the contentious election year began and before the rough-and-tumble presidential debates. Media assessments, covering a variety of topics from a variety of perspectives and sources including Fox News and Slate, were administered to students in a dozen states. Close to 8,000 responses were analyzed. The testing included students from well-sourced schools in Minneapolis to under-resourced schools in Los Angeles, and yet the responses were all very similar, with many students having real challenges distinguishing, for example, between an ad and a news story, unless the ad contained something as obvious as a coupon.

Like what you’re reading? Subscribe now in print or digital.

The bottom line here, according to the researchers and concerned lawmakers, is not to take a young person’s technological savvy for granted. Just because they can navigate the internet, develop web sites and post to social media pages as well than the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world doesn’t mean they aren’t negatively influenced by what’s out there.

Considering that young people are spending about as much time with media each week as adults do in their full-time jobs, parents and educators can help young people develop better skills when it comes to fact versus fiction.

We know as Christians that “the truth will set us free” (Jn 8:32) but only if we have the skills to help us know the truth when we see or hear it.

Teresa Tomeo is the host of “Catholic Connection,” produced by Ave Maria Radio and heard daily on EWTN Global Catholic Radio and SiriusXM Channel 130.