How to Teach Your Kids to Be Critical Consumers of Media

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Kids are bombarded by advertising, fake news, and misinformation every day. Even small children are exposed to different types of media through the shows, videos, and advertising they see on iPads and smartphones.

In fact, a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation discovered that children ages 8 to 18 spend more than 7.5 hours a day, seven days a week interacting with various forms of media including everything from television, music, and movies to computers, video games, and social media. And, when considering the fact that kids use more than one of these forms of media at a time, the study found that many kids are logging nearly 11 hours of media each day.

For this reason, many educators and researchers say it's pertinent that parents take steps to teach their kids how to become critical consumers of media, especially because media is not going away anytime soon. But how is this task accomplished? While limiting media consumption is certainly important, especially for children under the age of 2, it's equally important to teach kids media literacy.

What Is Media Literacy?

According to Common Sense Media, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing families and educators with information about media and technology, media literacy is the ability to identify different types of media and understand the types of messages they are sending.

Beyond traditional media, the types of media that kids consume each day include everything from text messages, memes, and viral videos to social media posts, video games, and advertising. Media literacy involves helping kids identify these different types of media and recognize that someone created the messages for a reason. Learning to identify those reasons and motives is the basis of media literacy.

Why Media Literacy Is Important

Most people are heavily influenced by all sorts of media, which ultimately impacts what they think and how they make decisions; and kids are no different. But by teaching kids to be critical consumers of media, parents are equipping their kids with the ability to analyze, evaluate, and produce media in a variety of forms.

It also helps kids learn to differentiate between fact and fiction as well as identify credible sources of information. The goal of media literacy is to help kids become wise consumers of media, develop critical thinking skills, find trustworthy sources of information, and express their ideas respectfully.

Media literacy also helps kids develop citizenship skills. Ultimately, they learn how to engage in a healthy and respectful debate with others and eventually learn how to participate in democracy someday.

In the end, kids who know how to be critical consumers of media are more likely to make informed decisions regarding what they believe. They also are more likely to know how to communicate what they don't believe and why.

Benefits of Teaching Media Literacy

We are living in a digital age where anyone can create media, which means those creators may have ulterior motives. For this reason, it's essential that parents teach kids how to be critical consumers of media.

This practice involves teaching them to question why someone created a certain message and whether or not they are a credible source of information. Although this skill is not always an easy one to learn, it is essential in today's world. Here are some other ways in which kids benefit from learning to be critical consumers of media.

Learn to Think Critically

When kids begin evaluating the things they are reading and viewing, they learn to stop and think about the messages they are consuming. They also learn to determine whether the information makes sense or requires a little more research. Ultimately, they learn to stop and think about things rather than just taking things at face value. They also learn to find examples that support their opinions.

Identify Trustworthy Sources

Knowing where to turn for reliable news and information is a crucial skill in this day and age. Teaching kids to be critical consumers allows them to recognize that some sources of information are less reliable than others.

Recognize Different Points of View

Part of media literacy involves recognizing that everyone has a different perspective. Being able to identify a creator's point of view helps kids realize that everyone is different and that is OK. Even if they don't agree with a certain point of view, they are able to recognize it and still be respectful.

Be a Smart Consumer

Becoming a critical consumer of media also teaches kids how to determine what things are credible and trustworthy and what things are not. It also helps them learn to recognize and evaluate messages from advertisers and marketers. They learn to evaluate these messages for what they are and make decisions on more than just the messages they are receiving.

Make Informed Decisions

When kids learn to be critical consumers of media, they learn how to research a particular subject and form their own opinions about that subject. They then use that information to make decisions, solve problems, or develop their own opinions. They also are more likely to know why they believe what they do.

Create Media Responsibly

Understanding that messages, social media posts, and videos all have an impact is an important part of media literacy—even when your child is the one creating those things. Ideally, this understanding will lead your kids to develop their own media with the intent of being authentic and trustworthy.

How to Teach Your Kids to Be Critical Consumers

Learning how to decipher various forms of media is complicated and confusing, but it is well worth the effort to teach your kids how to become critical consumers. Here are some tips on how to teach even the youngest of kids how to be critical consumers of media.

Begin When They're Young

Most people assume that the time to start teaching media literacy is around late elementary school or early middle school. But most media professionals indicate that parents should start much sooner than that, especially because kids are being exposed to media at younger and younger ages. In fact, a Pew Research Center report found that more than one-third of parents report that their children began using smartphones before the age of 5.

To begin teaching your child media literacy, start with the basics. Something as simple as pointing out the difference between reality and fantasy can build a foundation for future literacy skills. With young children, parents can explain that the people in commercials are pretending just like they do when they play dress up. While it may take them a while to grasp this concept, it helps kids learn that not everything they see in media is a true reflection of reality.

As kids get older, they may even begin to realize that the things they see on social media are just a curated highlight reel of someone's life. The posts don't accurately reflect the ups and downs that people experience on a day to day basis.

Instead, the majority of a person's social media account only shows the good stuff. This can keep kids from believing that other people have a better life than them or believing that they don't experience the same struggles that they do.

Look for Teachable Moments

Be on the lookout for things in your everyday life that can be used to open a conversation with your child about media. For instance, if you see signs of misinformation in a news story or a social media post, talk about it. Or, if you see someone making wild statements in a YouTube video without facts to back it up, research it together to see what you can learn.

Get kids thinking about the fact that headlines can be deceiving and that they are sometimes written to get them to click on the information. What's more, help them get in the habit of reading an entire article or post before sharing it online. Sometimes a headline will make a shocking claim but once your child clicks on the article, they may realize the article doesn't back up the claim.

It's important that kids learn how to interact with media in healthy ways and part of that means becoming aware of what they are posting and why. Have discussions about what it might mean to create a post or share an article so that your kids learn to look at what they're doing online from different angles.

Consume Media With Them

Nearly every parent recognizes the importance of sitting down with their kids and reading a book together. You talk about the pictures, sound out the words, and make comments about the story. The same thing should happen with other types of media, especially digital media.

Rather than just handing them an iPad or your smartphone, sit down with them and talk about what they're doing and what they're seeing. Ask questions about what they think or how particular things make them feel. You can even ask them to teach you how to play their new favorite video game or ask them to explain what's going on in the video they're watching.

Too many times, parents resort to setting rules and guidelines about screen time without really thinking about what their kids are seeing or doing when they do have screen time. Engage in the media with them and you will be surprised what you can learn about your child.

Show Them How to Find Reputable Information

As your kids get older, help them identify what a reliable news story looks like. In other words, reputable journalists will often share both sides of story and provide sources for their information. Additionally, because there is so much information on the Internet, try teaching them where to find find reputable sources of information and how to find quality content.

You also can introduce them to media outlets that provide quality, journalistic information with a commitment to publishing factual information. Additionally, try to avoid making blanket statements like "You can't trust the media anymore." There are still reputable sources out there, it just may take a concerted effort to find them.

Teach Them to Question Things

Teaching your child how to become a critical consumer of media is not a one-time lesson. Instead, it's an ongoing conversation that you have with your kids on a regular basis from the time they are little through their teen years.

Many times, these conversations will begin with open-ended questions that get your kids thinking about the media they are consuming. For instance, you might ask your teen what they think the creator's agenda is in producing an article or a video. Or, you might ask who they think might benefit from the article or video.

You could even ask them if they think something is believable and how they would go about researching it to find out if it is. Questions like these cause them to stop and think about the media they just consumed.

Be a Good Role Model

Kids learn a lot about media literacy from watching their parents. Show them that you care about and are interested in finding factual information. You also can model for them what it means to question things without being disrespectful to others or becoming jaded about the news.

Demonstrate to the best of your ability that there is reliable and trustworthy information out there. Invite your kids to explore a topic with you or to research something that you question. Sit down and look at reputable sources of information together online. Show them how to research something by identifying which sources they can trust and which to disregard.

A Word From Verywell

Every day your kids are bombarded with messages, media, and information making it hard for them to know what is factual and what isn't. For this reason, learning how to determine what to believe and what to question is an essential life skill. And there's no better time to start than now.

Even if your child is a toddler or a preschooler, you can start laying the groundwork for media literacy. Then throughout their life, you can teach them to decipher what's being thrust upon them while learning to become more confident and savvy consumers.

4 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Kaiser Family Foundation. Generation M2: Media in the lives of 8- to 18-year-olds.

  2. Michigan State University. Helping kids become critical consumers of media calls for self-focus by adults.

  3. Common Sense Media. What is media literacy and why is it important?

  4. Pew Research Center. Parenting children in the age of screens.

By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon, CLC is a published author, certified professional life coach, and bullying prevention expert.