Schools have embraced digital learning at an accelerated pace during lockdown. More schools are putting more devices into the hands of more children. It’s fantastic for the schools that have been able to do this; the benefits of digital literacy are clear, helping young people develop essential life skills for their education and employment futures. As we give children greater access to technology, we have a responsibility to also give them the tools to be discerning and capable digital citizens.

In our work with primary schools one of the most popular NewsWise activities is a fake or real quiz – a selection of unlikely or surprising headlines and pictures designed to show that it can be difficult to tell at first glance whether or not a story is true. Gut reactions from the children can be telling: “But I just don’t believe it!”; “But look at the picture, it must be real!”. Even when presented with evidence, they find it difficult to concede that their first instinct was incorrect.

It’s hard to be told that you’re wrong. Especially if you have strong feelings or emotions about a subject. And often that is exactly what fake news and biased, slanted writing is designed to provoke; getting a reaction is the goal. Most of us are guilty of reacting to a post on social media without properly interrogating it. An example I love to use is the “baby platypus” picture that went viral on Twitter earlier this year. In fact the photo showed a sculpture that didn’t bear much resemblance to an actual baby platypus, but it was shared thousands of times as if it were the real thing. A key tweet came from an account who was clearly an expert on knitting (as you could see from their previous posts), but not wildlife. That alone should have been enough to make people pause, but it didn’t stop tens of thousands of people liking and sharing their post.

It’s a great example of that classic of digital literacy: “why you shouldn’t trust pictures on the internet”. It is often the presence of a picture that is most likely to convince children that a news story is true. But of course, just like written information, sometimes things appear bigger or more significant than they really are or are misrepresented entirely. You shouldn’t accept either pictures or text at face value. Many children are familiar with the idea of photoshop, but explaining other ways that photos can be manipulated such as miscaptioning and forced perspective can be both enlightening and engaging. I’ve had huge fun working with families to create a forced perspective photo and then explain how it was done, ensuring that they don’t fall for the same in the future.

A miscaptioned picture of a baby animal is a fairly benign example of fake news, but the threat of Covid-19 has brought the real-life dangers of misinformation into sharper relief and shown it’s more crucial than ever that we equip young people with the critical skills to judge what is trustworthy.

We developed a simple code for navigating news and online information: Stop. Question. Check. Decide. Stop before you react, believe or share. Question: Where did this information come from? Who shared it? Who wrote it? Have I heard of them before? Are they a known news source? Are they an expert in this area? Check if the source looks right and whether the information has been shared by any other trustworthy sources, and only then decide whether to believe and share it or tell people that it is not true! It is the questioning that is key to developing critical skills. Being active, engaged and curious rather than passively accepting information.

Turn children into fake news detectives and active critical questioning becomes a game. The context of news also allows you to explore consequences of misinformation that are easy to relate to: How would you feel if there was a hurricane in your neighbourhood? And then what if you saw a picture showing a shark swimming down the street? How might that affect your feelings and your actions?

The exams chaos over the summer also dramatically demonstrated how algorithms, AI and machine learning are now not only part of everyday life, but their use can have potentially life-changing consequences. Introducing younger children to these complex concepts is valuable and powerful, especially when coupled with critical questioning: Why has this video been suggested to me? Who does this benefit? Why are my search results different from my friend’s? Am I missing out on information? What if I only see information from one source or perspective? What if something misleading is extremely popular? What if machine learning reinforces bias?

There are lots of technological solutions being developed to tackle fake news; apps and browser extensions that use AI and machine learning to recognise fake news and alert you when something is suspect: these can undoubtedly be useful tools but on their own they do not teach anyone the skills to be confident, discerning consumers themselves; to distinguish between fact and opinion, identify bias and to question: who is represented in this report? Who is missing? Why does this matter?

We explore all of these ideas in NewsWise workshops, lessons and teacher training, and our recent evaluation report shows that it has a big impact. After taking part, children felt more confident about navigating the news, had better news literacy behaviours, like checking whether a story came from a source they trusted, and were twice as likely to be able to tell whether a report was real or fake.

Rightly there is an emphasis on safeguarding, online safety and security as teaching and learning moves onto digital platforms. But as children have greater and easier access to online information, as closed social media channels such as WhatsApp become more prevalent and the way in which we all obtain news, communicate and even socialise, becomes increasingly digital first, there needs to be a similar focus on critical skills. The concept of staying safe online needs to expand to include judging the quality of the content we discover there: how to find reliable information, how to ensure you are not exposing yourself and others to misleading material, and to consider whether you are getting the full picture. When children see information online, we want their first instinct to be to question it – to ask: “But what is the source?”.