Thinking critically about news on social media

Encourage children and young people to think critically about news they see on social media with expert advice from Dr. Elizabeth Milovidov and Lauren Seager-Smith.

Dr Elizabeth Milovidov, JD

Law Professor and Digital Parenting Expert
Expert Website

At its inception, social media was an online resource that allowed people to stay in touch with family, friends and colleagues. It has rapidly transformed into something more than just “social connections”; it has become a source of news and updates for many for many adults and children.

Unfortunately, online news may also come with challenges: inaccuracies, biased opinions, censorship of key details, uncivil discussions, violence, hate speech and more.

Parents and carers need to talk to children and young people about the veracity of news sources – whether this be print, radio or online. A few quick strategies include:

  • Do not take everything at face value
  • Do your research to find trusted websites and sources
  • Bookmark those reliable websites and download any corresponding apps
  • Fact check, fact check, fact check!
  • Engage those critical thinking skills and ask ‘Who benefits? Why is this appearing now? What are other angles? How can this be used as a force for good or for bad?’

A final thought: remind children and young people that you are always available for discussion and support as they navigate the online world.

As a mum, I’ve noticed an increase in my children asking me curious questions about public affairs, some of which appear to come out of nowhere.

One recent example was a barrage of questions about what happened to Princess Diana. It turns out this was fuelled by a spat of trending posts online; every day, there seems to be a new fascination. Not all of this is bad. There is a lot of genuine debate and curiosity, and it’s good to see younger people finding their own way and not just believing what they are told.

On the other hand, our children are open to any thought or opinion, no matter how spurious, defamatory or dangerous. So how do we help our children navigate this?

The first step is always to support open communication. Don’t shut down a question or idea just because you don’t agree with it. Ask where it came from, what they think it means and how your child feels about it.

Secondly, encourage them to question. Whatever your politics might be at home, encourage your child to consider the source and to understand that there will always be a number of perspectives on any situation. Some news channels now have fact-checkers that are good to share with your child, so they can understand the process of seeing whether what someone said was actually true or not.

Thirdly, support your child to question authority – albeit respectfully. People can hold authority or power over others in lots of different ways. For example, political leaders, celebrities or social influencers all have a version of authority. Encourage your child to think for themselves and to talk to you if they have questions or concerns.

Finally, help your child to develop empathy and compassion. Social channels want us to get angry and react, to take a side, to click and share. If we learn how to stand in others’ shoes, even if it’s not our experience, then we may be slower to react, kinder and wiser in our actions.