“If it’s on the internet, then it must be true.” First lesson of the internet in our house, delivered on a weekly basis, dripping with sarcasm. My kids must be catching on, because their usual response is an eye-roll.
So I put on my Granny glasses, curl my lip back, and tell them a story…
When I was in school and had a research paper to complete, it usually required several days spent at the library. (Maybe less if you were the lucky owner of a complete set of Encyclopedia Britannica. Oh, how I wanted one of those as a kid! ) We used an antiquated system called a card catalog (a phrase that has absolutely no meaning to teenagers today), talked to actual people called librarians if we couldn’t find a source, and read actual books. We had to physically turn the pages and read to find the information we wanted. The most advanced piece of tech was the microfiche machine. Or the copy machine, depending on your level of expertise. I spent many dimes trying to copy pages of reference books that weren’t allowed to leave the library, just so I could have the information I needed.
My children have a hard time imagining life BC- before computers. “There were no computers at the library??” they ask unbelieving. “How did you find the books?” Um. Refer to above paragraph. “But how did you FIND anything?” (sigh)
No, there weren’t computers at the library, I tell them, or in most homes for that matter. For crying out loud, I don’t think my family owned a microwave or even a VCR until I was in high school . (“How did you make popcorn?” is my favorite question.) If we were lucky enough to have one of the first “personal computers” in our classrooms, then well, we were lucky enough. Remember the TRS-80’s? Remember fearing the wrath of your teacher if you, God forbid, pushed the orange reset button? Perhaps this is why I have so easily adapted to technology in my life.
Our public library was our main and trusted source of primary information. We didn’t have to question the reference books we read, or the magazine articles we came across. Editorials and secondary sources, opinion pieces and heresy, were pretty easy to spot and weed out, and we certainly didn’t count them as information worthy for our research papers.
When my oldest daughter started coming home with research projects, I thought, “How wonderful to have the internet to do research- she has access to all this information right from home!” (Our youngest was an infant at the time, I did not relish taking him out for a day of research at the library.) As my kids are growing, I have the same thought, only tinged with panic: “ARGH! They have access to ALL THIS INFORMATION RIGHT FROM HOME!”
I actually feel badly for them at times, this whole generation. The extreme advances in technology that have become the norm for them, have also resulted in extreme information overload. They have access to so much, at any time, about anything. How do you sift through all the crap, and find the actual true stuff? I am learning, in this time of “communications revolution,” that information does not equal knowledge. We are, all of us, inundated and overwhelmed by stories and editorials perpetrated as “facts.” And for the most part, kids have not yet developed a fine-tuned sense of cynicism. They tend to believe most of, if not all, what they see and hear on the internet. And the majority of it comes to them from social media.
Can we take a moment to remember the clown scare in the months leading up to Halloween 2016? On more than one occasion, I had to debunk the “But, Mom, this is REAL” statement when one of them saw a “legit video of a scary clown coming out of the woods…”
“Don’t you think it’s possible the guy doing the video said to his friend, ‘Hey dress up like a scary clown and come out of those woods.’ ?” I said.
I never thought that along with teaching the morals of kindness, respect, and honesty to my children that I’d have to help them develop a healthy sense of sarcasm and cynicism as well.
Second lesson: Anyone can post anything on the internet. Like for instance, a random former teacher mom of three can have her own blog and write whatever she wants on it.
But I do think as adults, we have a serious responsibility to teach our children, students, and athletes that the onus is on them to determine the veracity of what they are reading. Wikipedia for instance, one of the largest reference websites in the world is, by its own admission, “written collaboratively by largely anonymous volunteers,” and is “a work-in-progress… (where) quality improves over time as misinformation and other errors are removed or repaired. However because anyone can click ‘edit’ at any time and add stuff in, any article may contain undetected misinformation (or) errors.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:About) It’s a good place to get an overview, but not as a main source of information.
In my humble opinion, the need to learn “information literacy” is just as important as regular literacy in school. I like that term, “information literacy,” so much that I borrowed it from a Newsday article, which although it is an opinion piece, makes some valid points. (http://www.newsday.com/opinion/7-ways-to-spot-and-debunk-fake-news-1.12695382) The author, Richard Hornik, who teaches news literacy at Stony Brook University, says there are four challenges to information literacy of the digital era:
- the sheer amount of information that flows daily
- our preference for speed over accuracy
- the ease of counterfeiting news
- our preference for information that supports our beliefs
Ain’t that the truth? (Ok, how many times has your blood started to boil over a political “article” shared by one of your Facebook friends? Probably too many to count.)
I also think an important part of teaching kids “information literacy” is teaching them not to rely on social media as their main source for information. A tricky thing, particularly because they are on it so much. At the very least, it is less than reliable. At its worst, it can be a haven for gossip-mongering and setting off new urban legends like wildfire in a dry cornfield.
As we teach our kids, we must also remind ourselves, to “know the source” and ask the questions: Where is this coming from? Who wrote it? Why are they writing it? Who do they work for? When did they write it? Do they stand to gain anything? Let’s work together to develop these young cynics.
Then we tell them to search. And search again. Read from a different source. And ask the questions again.
Knowledge may equal power, but information does not equal knowledge. Let’s all learn to know the difference. Otherwise we take the risk of becoming sheep following the loudest voice with the shiniest staff.