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Information—What’s True? Book Excerpt #6

Wednesday, January 31st, 2018

Exciting news! Join us on Thursday, February 8, at 8:00 p.m. EST, for a Live Q&A on Raising Kids in a Digital World!

For the last four months, we have been posting excerpts from the new book we are working on, Who’s Raising Our Kids? Nurturing Human Values in a Digital World (©2017). We have enjoyed the rich conversations with parents, teachers, and students as we present on this topic at schools across the continent. We want to keep the conversation going! During this live video stream, we (Sharon and Chelsea) will be answering your questions. You can submit questions anonymously here.

We look forward to receiving your questions! Please share about this event with friends and family!

Excerpt #6:

What’s true about the world?

The abundance of information at our fingertips today not only impacts what we believe to be important, it also shapes our understanding of what is true. Pre-internet, we relied on a handful of sources to inform us about global events: a few newspapers of record and three television channels. The downside was a significant lack of diversity in thought and perspective. The upside: we were pretty sure that the people responsible for these media outlets weren’t just grabbing the most provocative piece of gossip to fill a 24-hour news cycle or get “likes” on their blog. We trusted that journalistic standards were being followed.

Now, struggling to stay relevant in the age of Twitter, even trusted media outlets can become careless in their reporting, succumbing to the pressure of being first to report “breaking news.” How do we help our children decipher and value truth in a world where being “first” trumps being “accurate”?

65% of young adults say that the internet is their main source for news (Pew Research Center, 2011). Blogs, tweets, posts, and YouTube videos scramble for their attention, often without even the pretext of accuracy.

As we consider how this will shape young people’s understanding of the world, let’s look at how the brain is wired to process information. We know that human brains give added weight to things we hear first. Not only do we pay closer attention to something new, but that first impression creates the context against which everything else is assessed. Think about how this puts us at a particular disadvantage in the cyber world where speed is valued over accuracy. Whatever gets our attention first, true or not, shapes how we continue to perceive the topic.

The human brain is also influenced by repetition. This makes us particularly vulnerable to 24-hour news which, to fill time, recycles the same reports again and again. Additionally, the cyber world easily plays into the hands of those who wish to confabulate. Hiding behind phrases like, “I’ve heard that…”, “I don’t know if it’s true but…,” or “People are saying…,” commentators and bloggers can escape accountability and profoundly shape the conversation. The more outrageous the statement, the more likely it will be picked up and repeated…continuously. Our children need to understand that this is gossip, not news, and that techniques like this undermine our ability to gain accurate information. Likewise, the words we say—and the sources we select for truthful information and choose to repeat—matter a great deal to those listening to us.

As I travel throughout the country, I’m struck by how every school is trying to develop a strategy to teach children how to assess the veracity of their sources. This is not easy to do when adults often are less aware of what’s available online than their students. But we have to go one step further. We also need to teach children to consult a variety of sources for a fuller view of a subject: if they choose only to access sources that support their opinion, they will not have the context necessary to determine what is true.

In future chapters we will continue to address how we can help our children sort out what is important and what is true. At this point let’s start a conversation about the differences between reporting on the news and spreading gossip, how flashy headlines never can capture the nuances of current events, and how “fast” can never replace “true.”

What is true…about me?

The information our children access online doesn’t just affect how they see the world, it impacts how they see and understand themselves.

In my Sexual Health and Responsibility Curriculum, I show students a video of the photoshopping process used to alter digital images: how a fashion model’s eyes are enlarged, her neck elongated, her skin lightened, and waist slimmed. The students are riveted and begin to research on their own. One 7th-grade girl shared how many celebrities now have staff available 24 hours a day to photoshop their selfies. The class was appalled. “I knew that magazines photoshopped pictures, but I thought selfies were real,” one girl exclaimed.

What else isn’t real?

Consistently accessing information that has been embellished to fit the cyber world’s idea of beauty and success has the power to shape how our children assess themselves, understand where they fit among their peers, and determine whether or not they have value.

Comparing ourselves and our lives to the glamorous, photoshopped lives of celebrities has been part of the American culture since the film industry began, but in this age of filters, photo editing apps, and social media, our children are comparing themselves and their lives to the digitally enhanced versions of their friends and family. Social media users only post pictures and experiences that capture peak or dramatic moments. By comparison, one’s own life looks drab and boring. Young people who spend considerable time on social media often talk about suffering from FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), a phrase that captures the anxiety and depression I often see in my office.

Dave, 16, has spent the last month creating a Snapchat account for his fabricated “girlfriend” and developing an impressive streak. Now he can save face with his friends, when they see that he has a streak going with a girl.

Lisa, 15, has downloaded a new app that allows her to record party scenes on Snapchat so that she can appear to be out partying. She has social anxiety and spends most weekends watching Netflix in bed.

Gary, 14, picked a fight with a kid at school, so his friends could record it and post it to YouTube, where he could compete for views.

How do we start conversations with our kids about the social needs and issues lying beneath these behaviors? A good way to start: show them how they are being manipulated. At a time in their life when their world is expanding and they’re trying to figure out how everything works, pre-teens and teens react strongly to the idea of being manipulated. In my workshops, kids are eager to talk about how social media manipulates their understanding of reality. Parents can begin these conversations at home by finding images that intentionally mislead. Discuss how all of us can feel depressed and dissatisfied when we compare our lives to the impressive, curated moments everyone posts on social media.

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