Our children are better equipped than we are to make sense of the media. We should learn from them

AIA Healthy Living Index Survey 2016
January 2, 2020
Planners are Oddballs
January 20, 2020

Our children are better equipped than we are to make sense of the media. We should learn from them.

Back when I was a fresh graduate starting my career, there used to be a joke that would do the rounds.

“What do you say to a media-studies graduate with a job?”

The (derogatory) answer is unrepeatable today. In those days, a liberal-arts education was for many people not a proper education, teaching nothing of practical value for the real world.

As a media-studies graduate I’m glad to report that they were wrong. I learned the importance of never taking anything you read or hear for granted, to recognise the filters and biases inherent in how information is presented, and to always corroborate before forming opinions.

Today more than ever, we need the skills to be able to think critically and get to facts. I’m not immune to disinformation and cognitive bias – no-one is, but I’d like to think that I’ve got a decent media IQ which helps me every day to wade through the morass of information with which I’m presented.

The morass is getting deeper. We all know by now how the modern communication landscape has contributed to social and political problems. On social media bad actors thrive and manipulation is rife.

There’s a pretty clear-cut case that we should teach media-literacy to our children. Along with financial literacy these are fundamental “life skills” that are as important as any academic subjects or professional qualifications. Interestingly, there is also evidence that our children are already teaching themselves, as a recent study reveals.

The evidence is clear: younger people are more comfortable with and are coping better with the freewheeling modern media environment, where news is equally likely to come from other citizens as from professional journalists.

The study also shows that the younger you are, the more likely you are to think online political advertising should be permitted, and to reject government intervention in the news media. What’s more, younger people are more aware of the negative effects of echo chambers and are more proactive in seeking out alternative viewpoints.

Why the generational gap? The answer lies in our expectations of how news should be presented to us, and of the personal responsibility borne by individuals when consuming news.

People of my generation (Generation X or people born before 1980 or thereabouts) were the final generation for whom news came exclusively from news organisations. Growing up, the news paradigm was well understood. News was curated and fact-checked for us. Biases existed of course, overt ones in the case of newspapers, but these were mostly explicit not disguised. Advertising existed within clear boundaries. We knew what we were getting when consuming news and information and were well versed in how to frame what came our way.

For later generations (let’s call them Generation Z and younger) who came of age alongside social-media and citizen journalism, expectations are different. As is the case in every other category, the locus of control in the news and information business has shifted from the provider to the user. The chaotic and unruly world of social is particularly hard to navigate if you were raised in an era of pre-packaged news. Whereas those who’ve known nothing else are more naturally skilled at it.

Like learning a language, it comes naturally when young and takes effort once older.

It’s fashionable to blame social media for society’s ills. And to call to government intervention and the curtailment of technology firms’ power, to create neat boundaries like the ones that existed before. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that the loudest voices tend to comprise people of my age and not that of my children, for whom other issues (like the world becoming too warm) are more pressing.

Legislation has its place. The unfiltered world of social media can be a horrifying place with genuine dangers. But the starting point is education, to help people to be vigilant and to take full control of their own experience in a way that maximises benefits and minimises threats

With the power we now have (to access information from anyone anywhere at any time), comes great responsibility. Our children understand this instinctively. So should the rest of us.

Back when I was a fresh graduate starting my career, there used to be a joke that would do the rounds.