What Is Digital Literacy? How to Teach Kids to Check Their Sources Online

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Today’s kids are more online than any generation before them. The internet is inextricably linked to nearly every part of their lives. That ever presence means it’s more important than ever to teach your child about digital literacy. But what is digital literacy, and why does it matter?

What is digital literacy?

Digital literacy refers to both the technical and cognitive skills needed to navigate our online world. An important part of digital literacy is the ability to find information online and evaluate the reliability of that information. It also involves knowing how to make smart decisions about sharing information online. 

For today's kids, digital literacy comes into play with everything from school projects, to YouTube videos, to social media. When kids are skilled in digital literacy, they’re more capable of identifying reputable information and sources.

Why digital literacy matters 

How we seek and share information has changed dramatically in recent years. In addition to resources like books, mainstream newspapers, and network news — all of which go through some form of validation or fact-checking process — we now have endless streams of information from anyone with an internet connection. 

While many of these new online sources are reliable, plenty of others are from self proclaimed “experts” who don’t know their facts. Intentional disinformation, including deepfakes, is also a growing concern. And the rapid rise of artificial intelligence has further muddied the waters, generating information that sounds credible but oftentimes isn’t.  

Here are several ways digital literacy skills help kids navigate this new information landscape: 

Gives them the tools to find reliable information online

The ability to find valid information online is not only useful for schoolwork. It’s a skill that will benefit them for the rest of their lives as they seek information about topics like their health, finances, employment, and news. 

Helps them understand their social feeds and evaluate who they follow

If a person posts a video where they speak authoritatively on a subject, it’s easy to take it at face value. Digital literacy helps kids evaluate the reliability of the people and information that comes across their feeds. For example, if someone is spouting mental health advice but isn’t actually a trained professional, your child should recognize that their information may not be entirely accurate.

Provides a framework for ethical behavior online

Digital literacy is an important component of behaving responsibly in a digital world. It’s the difference between sharing credible information and misinformation. If your child recognizes that a source may not be trustworthy, they’ll know to tread carefully if friends are sharing conspiracy theories or other faulty information.

How to talk to your kids about digital literacy

Digital literacy is such a broad concept that it can be daunting to know how to talk about it with your kids. Start small and build on their learning as they get older. 

Here are some tips to get you started: 

Show them how to find reliable information online 

Teach your kids to look for sites that are backed by reputable organizations and run by people with expertise. It’s also a good idea to check the date on the article to make sure the information is current. Check out these additional tips on evaluating internet resources from Georgetown University Library

Explain deepfakes

Fake videos created by artificial intelligence (aka deepfakes) are on the rise. Teach your kids to be on the lookout for things like odd facial movements or pixelation — a few red flags that the video may be artificially generated. 

Coach them to pause before they post

Pausing to consider the validity of a post before sharing it helps prevent the spread of disinformation. If something online seems unbelievable, there’s a good chance it’s not trustworthy.  

This also goes for original posts that your child makes. Explain that vague posts and unclear online communication can easily cause confusion and conflict. Learning what’s okay to share online and what’s not is a major part of developing digital literacy. 

Talk to them about algorithms

Help your child recognize why certain things come across their feeds. If they begin engaging with fringe theories and inflammatory content creators, they’ll see more of that content on their social media. 

Practice media monitoring 

Stay involved in your child’s online life so you can continue to guide them toward greater digital literacy. Regular tech check-ins and using a child safety app like BrightCanary are great ways to stay in the loop about what your child is up to online. 

Teach your child to be a good digital citizen 

Digital literacy isn’t only about evaluating other’s actions. It’s also about learning to be a responsible member of the online community. Help your children learn to live their values online by being intentional about their behavior.

PBS learning media’s Be MediaWise is a series of digital literacy lessons geared toward kids. The videos are short, fun, and informative. Check them out with your child to continue the conversation on digital literacy. 

The final word 

Like reading and writing, digital literacy is a core skill today’s kids need to succeed in the modern world. Help your child learn to be internet wise by teaching them how to check online sources, protect their privacy, and be a good digital citizen.  

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