Helping kids become smart media consumers

It’s hard to know what to believe anymore.

Inundated as the average person is today with over 30 gigabytes! of daily information, the truth is harder to come by than the proverbial needle in a haystack.

In 2016, Oxford Dictionaries selected “post-truth” as the word of the year, defining it as “relating to circumstances in which facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than are appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

According to a Pew Research Center study conducted just after the 2016 election, 64% of adults believed fake news stories cause a great deal of confusion and close to 25% said they had shared fabricated political stories themselves – sometimes by mistake and sometimes intentionally.

If we adults have a hard time separating fact from fiction and a harder time checking our emotions and impulses when consuming media, just imagine how harder it is for young kids. Sadly, the future will only get worse according to more than half of media experts interviewed in 2017 by BBC Future Now. The reasons, they said, are twofold:

First, the fake news ecosystem preys on some of our deepest instincts. Humans’ primal quest for success, power, and belonging (our survival instinct) will continue to degrade the online information environment. Manipulative actors will use new digital tools to take advantage of our inbred preference for comfort and convenience and our craving for the answers we find in our chosen echo chambers. As evidence, a 2016 study analyzed 376 million Facebook users’ interactions with over 900 news outlets and found that people tend to seek information that aligns with their views.

Second, our brains are not wired to cope with the pace of technological change. The rising speed, reach, and efficiencies of the internet and emerging online applications will only magnify these human tendencies and no technology-based solution will be able to overcome them. Experts predict a future landscape in which fake information crowds out reliable information and even foresee a world in which widespread scams and mass manipulation will cause many of us to simply give up on being informed participants in civic life. Such worrisome trends were already present during the 2016 presidential election where four in ten Americans who were eligible to vote did not do so.

As much as I worry about the future of democracy in the United States in a post-truth world, my main concern is for its youth. If there ever was a right time to arm our kids with critical thinking skills, surely this is it. Not just to help them become informed and active participants in civic life, but to protect them from online hate groups and the false promises of advertising.

Our kids now view over 40,000 television commercials per year according to a 2006 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics, and are increasingly blasted by ads on the Internet, in magazines, and even at school through corporate-sponsored educational materials and product placements in students’ textbooks. Trouble is… young children are cognitively and psychologically defenseless against this barrage. They do not yet understand the notion of intent to sell and frequently accept advertising claims at face value.

Many beer commercials, for example, show attractive young people having a great time, promising America’s youth (mostly boys) instant camaraderie as soon as they chug the beer.

Girls, on the other hand, are promised love everlasting once a ‘worthy’ guy mortgages his future to buy her that sparkling one-carat diamond engagement ring.

Junk food is peddled as a “well-deserved break” or “happy meal” at a time when five million kids suffer from obesity.

Pricey sneakers are dangled in front of boys’ eyes as magical slippers that will whisk them through the air towards instant fame, power, and success.

Against all this fakeness; all the fabricated lies, conspiracies and illusions, some progressive countries – like Finland – are inoculating children at a very young age. Others, like the United States, have yet to catch on. This is why I’ve included the Life Force of an Open but Critical Mind in my book for boys as part of the ten character strengths they’ll need to safely navigate across a rapidly-changing, challenging, and increasingly dangerous world.

Since children learn best through stories and metaphors, I use the example of an oyster to help seer the lessons in their minds.

Here’s what I tell them:

“I feel kind of silly trying to teach you about the value of an open mind when it should be the other way around. Like you, young people are curious and eager to learn and walk around like giant question marks. It is only when we start growing up that we turn from question marks to periods. We shut our minds – snap! – like oysters.

“A mind is like a parachute,” said rebel bandleader Frank Zappa. “It doesn’t work if it’s not open.”

So why do we allow our minds to gradually close?

Because we become lazy, arrogant, and scared.

The lazy part is easy to understand and easiest to correct. All you need are the Life Forces of Grit and Curiosity. Arrogance, on the other hand, is what happens to us when we’re consumed by pride. We begin to think we know it all and don’t need to learn anything new.

Ask anyone who the wisest people in history have been, and they’ll probably include Greek philosopher Socrates and science genius Albert Einstein. Socrates was reported to have said that the only thing he knew was that he didn’t know anything. Einstein confessed he had no special talent but was only extremely curious.

These guys never stopped exposing their great minds to new ideas so why on earth should we? Remember… an organism that fails to learn and adapt to a changing environment will perish. Oysters that remain shut, can’t eat. 

But what about fear? How does fear close our minds?

In the Life Force of Social Intelligence I told you how a person’s identity is shaped, in part, by the common story shared by the community in which he is raised. The more time goes by, the more we identify ourselves through that story and the more deeply we rely on that story to tell us who we are and where we belong.

For example: if you had been born and raised in a small Medieval village in the 14th Century, your entire world would have been contained within that environment. Your family would likely own a tiny farm which you and your siblings would one day inherit. Or, if your father were the town’s blacksmith or carpenter, he would one day train you to replace him. No chance you would get a formal education. School was reserved for the nobility.

The village would be ruled by a local lord to whom the villagers owed their allegiance in exchange for protection. There was no way you could rise to a position of wealth and power so no one was telling you that you could be anything you wanted to be. That would’ve been silly. In that sense, envy was less painful because of your inescapable circumstances. You were born a peasant and would die a peasant, or serf, or blacksmith. Life was also short. If lucky, you would live until the age of 40.

Your village likely contained no more than two hundred people so everyone knew one another. You knew whom to trust and who was untrustworthy. 

People didn’t travel much; there was no media, not even books. People got their news either through town gossip, the occasional traveler, and from the village priest at church. The story of your village was your story. There was no other story. 

Life was hard, but simple. The bad things that happened to your town, like plagues, disease, droughts, crop failure or famine were easily explained by religion – it was the will of God. During that time, people also believed the Earth was flat and that humans were at the center of the Universe. We were the chosen species. It was a comforting, simple story which made everyone feel special, safe, and protected.

Then came the printing press (the Internet of the 1400s) which made information more available, followed by the Scientific Revolution that brought the world a different story and challenged sacred beliefs making many people feel unsafe. The rug was pulled from under their feet, so to speak, and no longer was there solid ground on which to stand. As expected, many oysters began to snap! shut.

Remember Galileo? The astronomer I mentioned earlier who proved Earth revolves around the Sun and not the other way around as many believed? His discovery meant that our planet, and, therefore, humans, were not at the center of the Universe which also meant we were not so special after all. This made many people upset and afraid, and when we panic, our brain – just like a zebra under attack by a lion – goes into either, flight, or fight mode.

Flight means shutting your mind from any news that contradicts your story in order to feel safe.

Fight means destroying the source of the unwelcome news.

In Galileo’s case, the church leaders at the time chose both. They refused to believe his story and locked him up in jail to force him to say his discovery was not true.

Here’s another good example.

Have you ever heard the phrase ‘Don’t kill the messenger?’ It originated from what happened right before the Battle of Tigranocerta, more than 2000 years ago, between the forces of the Roman Republic, led by Lucullus, and the army of the Kingdom of Armenia, led by King Tigranes the Great. As Lucullus’ forces advanced towards Armenia, a messenger arrived at King Tigranes’ camp to warn him about the oncoming attack. The King refused to believe him and was so scared by the information that he had the messenger’s head cut off.

Guess who lost the battle?

The human brain’s most important job is not to think, feel, or even see, but to keep our bodies alive and well so that we may survive and thrive (and eventually reproduce). 

Our mind has filters to deal with all the information coming at us from the outside world, breaking things down and making them simpler for us to consume and understand. But these filters are not entirely rational. They don’t separate things neatly between right and wrong, true or false, but by how closely the information matches and supports our personal story, our sense of self, our beliefs, and the beliefs shared by our village or tribe. Our brains work on the fly, and if overloaded with information, we seek simple answers to complicated questions, like chopping someone’s head off.

The world you live in today is far more complicated than the one a boy had to navigate in the 14th Century. Way more!

Information is coming at you from everywhere, overloading a brain that has not evolved quickly enough to filter it all. It’s still operating under its basic fight or flight settings. What’s making things more challenging is that the Internet and social media now allow anyone to post anything, whether true or false, and it’s very difficult to know which is which and almost impossible to know who you can trust.

The locusts of the world know this well. They know it’s becoming much harder for young people to find their place in the world. Often using cute memes and jokes to conceal their poison, they’ll try to manipulate your confusion and your fears – sometimes even causing you to be afraid for no good reason – and once they have you under their spell, they will offer you a simple solution to make you feel safe, like, “Join our tribe, and we will protect you!” “Believe our story, and you’ll be saved. You’ll get the power and respect you deserve!” Or like ‘Scar’ in the movie Lion King, when he tells the hyenas: “Stick with me and you’ll never go hungry again!”

Something similar happens with advertising.

If you examine ads more closely you will notice they’re trying to sell you something wrapped in something else. Beer commercials, for example, often show a bunch of guys having a great time while chugging down the beers. These ads are intentionally preying on the basic need we all have for friendship and promise that as soon as we buy the beer we’ll be immediately surrounded by a loving group of buddies. Yeah, right…

A pair of expensive sneakers, for instance, is sold to us with the promise that we, too, will be famous, powerful, and wealthy (like Michael Jordan) as soon as we put them on.

Junk food is sold to us as “happy meals.”

All this may sound cool and comforting, but it’s a Venus Flytrap: the carnivorous plant, also known as ‘The Red Dragon,’ that lures its prey with sticky sweet nectar. Once a bug lands on its leaves, it trips the trigger hairs on the outside of the traps and snap!, in an eyeblink, the leaves shut and the Red Dragon begins to devour its prey.

To avoid being devoured by red dragons, you must neither close your mind entirely nor believe something because it makes you feel safe, comforted, or offers you stuff through false and sticky promises. The answer is to become a smart oyster.

Oysters are the ocean’s masters of filtration. They are detritivores, feeding off dead but nutritious organisms and fecal matter (poop), all of which gets filtered in and over their gills.

Think of social media and the web as a vast ocean of information that contains both nutritious knowledge as well as a lot of poop. The challenge is to feed your brain rightly by creating an efficient filtration system. Open too wide and for too long, and your brain will go on overload and quickly make you look for simple answers, buy stuff you don’t need, or cling more tightly to what you believe. Shut it down completely and you won’t survive.

Open it up only to stories which make you feel safe, or only agree with what you believe is true, and you won’t grow as a human being. Your job is not to be right, but to learn. You must have the courage to look for stories and opinions that completely disagree with yours. So neither kill the messenger nor believe everything he says. There is a big difference between being skeptical and being close-minded. 

Be open, but prudently open, and always carry the Shield of Skepticism and Critical Thought.

If you’re smart, you’ll make pearls, like oysters do.

So for instance, when you come across any commercial, or story, or any piece of online news, use these tools before you decide to believe something or not:

  1. What is the commercial promising you’ll get if you buy their product? Think of other ways you can obtain what it promises. If it’s friendship you want, there are better ways to find it than through drinking beer.
  2. Which of your emotional buttons are being pushed by the story or article? Your fears? Your prejudices? Your anger, loneliness, or the feeling you have no power or control over your life? If any one button is being pushed, chances are there’s a Red Dragon doing the pushing.
  3. Check the credentials of the person writing the article. Are they credible? Are they real? Might the writer have a hidden purpose for publishing it?
  4. Check the supporting sources in every article. Click on the links and determine if the information actually supports what it claims.
  5. Check the date. Reposting old news doesn’t mean it’s relevant to current events.
  6. Is it a joke? If it’s too weird or hard to believe, it’s probably fake.
  7. Check your biases, or the inclination you may already have for or against someone or something. Consider if your own beliefs may affect your judgment.
  8. Look for expert opinions online. Consult a fact-checking site.
  9. Exceptions don’t prove a rule is false. If 99 experts in a given field say something is true and only one says it’s not, then it’s likely true.

Use these tools and you’ll be armed with a strong and impregnable shield.

The Life Force of an Open but Critical Mind is the way of your inner Wizard whose job is to filter the information entering the kingdom of your mind, reflecting on it, and then delivering the pearls of wisdom to your inner King.

Wise wizards, like Socrates and Einstein, are neither lazy, arrogant know-it-alls, overly trusting, nor are they afraid to change their opinion when confronted with a higher truth. They’re also smart oysters who know how to uncover and flush-out Red Dragon poop.”

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Check these additional resources to help your son develop critical thinking skills:

The tales of Sherlock Holmes re-told for children (Grade level 4-6) by Mark Williams.The Hardy Boys book series