How to Build Up Critical Thinking in Your Digital Kids

media literacy“The environment teaches.” ~John Dewey

It’s no longer an option; critical thinking has become a skill kids must learn to master in today’s content-driven, digital world.

The recent spotlight on fake news and the current call to more carefully analyze online content has brought the topic of media literacy for families front and center. But what is media literacy and how can parents help make that concept relevant to kids who can be naive and impulsive in sharing online content?

What is media literacy?

Media literacy, as defined by the National Association for Media Literacy, is the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create, and act using all forms of communication. Media literacy empowers us all to become critical thinkers and makers, effective communicators, and active digital citizens.

Raising kids who are critical thinkers, who can wisely consume, question, create, and share content, is among the new parenting goals of the digital age.

Critical Thinking vs. Impulsive Sharingmedia literacy

It’s got to be tough. Screen time among teens is high and the temptation to share trending content even higher. So in the land of memes, gifs, videos, clever tweets, and fake news, where do we even begin to ignite our kids’ desire to think critically before they hit ‘publish’?

How do we inspire them to slow down and be fully present online rather than just sharing the most popular content that may or may not be wise?

We begin with educating ourselves.

The parent’s role

Talk. Talk a lot. To build media literacy in our kids, we get intentional about discussing content — what it means, it’s implications, the messages being promoted. The heartbeat of strong media literacy in families is in the family’s power of discussion.

Teach them to question. The ability to think, discern and question media messages is a skill that is learned. You can help your kids build these skills in everyday situations such as watching TV commercials, movies, or even sitcoms, and the news. Rather than simply consume the content pouring into your home, challenge it, dissect it, and peel back the layers of agendas at work. You might ask: If you could rewrite this story’s ending, what would it look like? Do you think adults in positions of power act that way? What would happen if you did what the commercial suggested?

Also, teach kids to question what they see around them in persona relationships such as a conflict on the soccer field. Rather than offer a quick opinion or commentary on a conflict, ask your kids: What could the coach have said differently to change the outcome of the situation? What other options did the umpire have? What would you have done in his place and why?

Go beyond the surface. As parents, we need to challenge our digital kids to think about the way they think. Challenge them to peel back the facts, graphics, and technology perks to better understand the goals and motives of the media they see and share.

Encourage original thought. By getting intentional about building media literacy skills, we help children learn that their ideas, creativity, and abilities are important — just as important as the ideas that swirl around them each day.

Lead with great questions. Get in the habit of asking questions that cause our children think. For example, take the time to get your teen to evaluate his or her life situations, to think deeper about cause and effect, and to challenge your child to imagine future consequences of theirs and others’ actions. Be the instigator of critical thinking. Ask questions such as: What do you think that person was thinking? Why do you think I want you to do this? Why do you feel that this choice is best for you? If you go that route, what’s likely to happen next?media literacy

Critical thinking is a skill that evolves, and the online culture challenges that ambition with every click.

It’s often the goal of advertisers, interest groups, public relations firms, and even hate groups to get others to react emotionally and impulsively share content.

Information comes at us quickly; clever headlines spark emotion, and the free exchange of ideas on social platforms provoke us to inject our opinions. But consider this: If it’s tough for adults to pause and reflect, how much harder is it for our kids? (Remember, their brains are not even fully formed until the age of 22!)

10 questions to build critical thinking online:

  1. What is the author’s agenda?
  2. What do I honestly think about this?
  3. Is this a value I share or am I just following my friends?
  4. Am I posting impulsively?
  5. Can I trust the source sharing the information?
  6. What’s the other side/opinion on this issue?
  7. Would this post helpful to the people or community I care about?
  8. Do I need to add a personal comment to clarify my position on this post?
  9. Am I exercising my best judgment or someone else’s?
  10. What would be the advantage/disadvantage of adopting the author’s view?

Do we have the time to ask all those questions before we post? No way. However, routinely grabbing onto a few of them will help your kids slow down and discipline their minds to think before they post, which will serve them well.

Additional Media Literacy Resources:

An entire army of media literacy heroes is out there working on behalf of families every day. They think about this growing issue, create curriculum to educate families and educators, and their passion is only growing. Here are just a few great resources:

Cyberwise’s Cybercivics Course. A course that gives educators, parents, and community leaders materials to teach a full year of media literacy to kids.

The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE), a great site packed with resources designed to improve and enhance media literacy education.

The Teacher’s Guide to Media Literacy: Critical Thinking in a Multimedia World by Faith Rogow and Cyndy Scheibe.

Media Literacy Now, the leading national advocacy organization for media literacy and digital citizenship education policy.



Toni Birdsong is a Family Safety Evangelist to McAfee. You can find her on Twitter @McAfee_Family and @ToniBirdsong. (Disclosures).

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