Rough Waters: Helping Adolescents Navigate Digital Information Sources

teen facing away with social media floating around head

How can digital tools and education effectively help secondary students critically evaluate the credibility, perspective or accuracy of digital sources or information? It’s a question that provokes no easy answers because of its inherent complexity.

Teens and Internet connected technology crash together like two storms, creating a singularly destructive super storm: teens struggle both with independence and critical thinking, and digital technology ostensibly geared toward adults) provides unlimited opportunities to make terrible decisions that can have life-long consequences at their worse, and cause the teen to be susceptible to misinformation at best. Despite the immense number of children and organizations involved, there are relatively few solutions to this problem.

On The One Hand: The Brain

During adolescence, the part of the human brain that deals with the ability to engage in critical thinking and reasoning undergoes important changes. This is specifically important as it relates to executive functioning: “the prefrontal cortex coordinates higher-order cognitive processes and executive functioning” (Johnson 2010). Executive functions are a set of supervisory cognitive skills needed for goal-directed behavior, including planning, response inhibition, working memory, and attention. These skills allow an individual to pause long enough to take stock of a situation, assess his or her options, plan a course of action, and execute it” (Johnson, 2010).

Table adapted from a blog post at the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology

Executive functioning skills are necessary for navigating the Internet, and evaluating websites and social media posts. However, a lack of executive functioning skill is not the only issue at play with how adolescents experience social media and Internet technology. The fact that adolescent brains are undergoing immense changes in this lobe makes them more susceptible to influence, as Konrad explains: “The high plasticity of the adolescent brain permits environmental influences to exert particularly strong effects on cortical circuitry. While this makes intellectual and emotional development possible, it also opens the door to potentially harmful influences” (Konrad, 2013).  Limited executive functioning and increased susceptibility to peer pressure causes a notable increase in specific, harmful behaviors at this age irrespective of their culture: “among the many behavior changes that have been noted for teens, the three that are most robustly seen across cultures are: (1) increased novelty seeking; (2) increased risk taking; and (3) a social affiliation shift toward peer-based interactions” (Johnson, 2010).

None of this is to say that tweens and teens cannot make rational decisions. It is simply an acknowledgement that their ability to do so is developing, and as a result they may struggle to do so in environments where making rational decisions is difficult. For example, “in situations that are particularly emotionally laden (e.g., in the presence of other adolescents or when there is the prospect of a reward), the probability rises that rewards and emotions will affect behavior more strongly than rational decision-making processes” (Konrad, 2013).

This frontal lobe development affects behavior and learning in adolescence, and plays an important role in how children understand and experience online information, whether it is through websites or social media.

On the other hand: Technology

All of these important developments occur at (and are partially due to) an age when tweens and teens are gaining independence over their choices and their environment, and begin exploring topics beyond the more sheltered realm of their childhood. The Handbook of Adolescent Psychology explains that “contemporary media often address highly salient topics (i.e., sex, drugs, and the many facets of pop culture) that parents and other adults are likely to ignore, avoid, or know relatively little about. Thus, media emerge, almost by default, as potentially powerful sources of information for adolescents who are self-socializing to the adult world” (Lerner, 2004).

There is increasing evidence media and technology play a central role in the emotional and intellectual explorations of children from the very beginning of adolescence and earlier. In 2014, “about 45% of US children ages 10 to 12 [had] a smartphone with a service plan” (Howard, 2017), but only 5 years later, “more than half of 11- and 12-year-olds are active on social media – and so are some as young as six” (Family Zone, 2021). Though the percentage increase is only slightly more than 5%, this shows that the number of early adolescents with easy independent access to digital media is increasing rather than decreasing.

In some ways, this access has potential benefits in lowering barriers to learning and increasing voice and agency among tweens and teens. But, that is offset by the ways in which technology companies and providers of information on the Internet have their own motives, which often place profits from advertising ahead of the social and intellectual development of our youth. Furthermore, this profit focus causes sites to create content in ways that appeal to the novelty-seeking, risk-taking, and social pressure sensitive adolescents. Filluci states that “ad-supported networks are in somewhat of a bind, since they get money when users click on stories — so the crazier the headline, the more money they make” (2018). This aspect of digital culture is not uniquely appealing to teens, and is often attractive to adults too, and it is this widespread appeal that draws advertising revenues and shapes content “online sources can offer half-truths, manipulate data, or advance a political or social agenda in ways that look completely impartial to the reader” (Pytash, 2018).

What About Tools?

This brings me back to the heart of the question at the beginning: How can digital tools and education effectively help secondary students critically evaluate the credibility, perspective or accuracy of digital sources or information?

The digital tools elements of the question are rare when applied to teen users, and it is possible that this is due to a gap created over two decades ago with the Children’s Online Privacy and Protection Act. Initially intended to protect children’s privacy, COPPA sets a cap for the age of childhood at 13, and levies large fines on companies that collect or distribute data about children under age 13 (Jargon, 2019). Therefore, many programs and social media platforms limit users to ages 13 and above, and traditionally have not placed limits on how users access material creating the unusual situation in which 13 year old users have the same free access to material as adults.

COPPA’s sponsor, Senator Edward Markay originally pushed for 16 as the age division between childhood and adulthood online, but this meant that teenagers would be unable to access information about health and birth control or report abuse without parental permission, so the age limit was reduced to 13. Markey acknowledges that this age is problematic in a Wall Street Journal article, saying “It was too young and I knew it was too young then. . .it was the best I could do” (Jorgan, 2019).

Further, companies are not held liable under COPPA if a child lies about their age: “they’re liable only if they have actual knowledge that the person is younger than 13, the FTC says. If a 13-year-old—or a younger child who lies about his age—uses general-audience apps and websites, his data can legally be collected and shared” (Jargon, 2019).

These loopholes and restrictions combine with the early age at which children begin using devices independently to access the Internet means that there is a multi year gap between when children begin using digital tools and when companies can acknowledge that they are on their platforms. As a result, there is no real market for digital solutions to the problems of early adolescents struggling with evaluating the verity of online resources and posts. 

For older adolescents, digital tools and restrictions on some platforms provide some protection. For example, TikTok has a limited version of the app for users under age 13, and recently added protections and restrictions for users ages 13-15, and revised the default settings for users ages 16 and 17 (Han, 2021). Other platforms have made efforts to revise their privacy settings for teenagers, but this does not address the free access that teens have to information online, nor does it address the struggles adolescents face in critically evaluating online resources.

Education for Critical Reading

Due to minimal digital tools to support adolescents in this environment, most efforts seem to center on supporting teens online through education. Unfortunately, as content creation grows more sophisticated, the traditional lessons for helping youth critically analyze sources falls short. For example, many education resources continue to tell students to look for .gov, .edu, and .org in the URLs of sources as an indicator of reliability. However, this is no longer as useful as it once was, as Ben Pattis, a graduate students at University of Wisconsin, Madison explains “While in many cases, the .org domain name is actually being used by a genuinely credible organization, there are also many instances where the .org website truly wouldn’t stand muster as a credible source” (Pattis, 2020).

Rather than teaching adolescents to rely on checklists to ensure that sources are valid and to critically evaluate information, it may be more effective to tailor education to the  unique patterns of thinking in which the adolescent mind engages. For example, it is possible to develop lessons that prioritizes social and personal benefits to engage adolescent learners. Konrad explains: 

“at this age, the benefit of risky behavior—the social approbation of peers—is rated much more highly than the risk itself. This may be associated with the nonlinear maturation pattern of the prefrontal and limbic brain areas. In accordance with this model, research on preventive programs has shown that programs based on imparting knowledge about risks are less effective than those focusing on individual benefits and on the training of social competence and resistance” (Konrad, 2013).

One example of a digital tool that can help students see a personal benefit to making careful decisions online is Trace My Shadow, which “shows students what digital traces they are leaving behind depending on the devices they use and how they use them” (Lynch, 2017). This immediate feedback regarding device use and information gathering can serve as an introductory tool for lessons on digital privacy and the permanence of digital footprints.

Another method of teaching critical evaluation of materials and sources, lateral reading,  uses the ability of digital natives to quickly and seamlessly navigate digital reading environments. Through it’s Civics Online Reading curriculum, Stanford University teaches that lateral reading is a technique used by fact checkers who open up several additional tabs alongside their original source, to check the reliability of the source and the information (Stanford, 2021). Instead of reading vertically down the website, they fact check as they go. Teaching lateral reading has several benefits including centering the acquisition of critical thinking skills on the students:  “using lateral reading as part of argument evaluation shifted the burden from the teacher to the students. Importantly, lateral reading can be used for any informational text” (Pytash, 2018). 

Three common methods students can use to check website credibility.

There are several other online education-focused tools for parents and educators working with children in adolescence to ensure critical thinking and digital literacy.

Resources to Teach Critical Evaluation Online:

Resources

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology. (2016, September) The teen brain: behavior, problem solving, and decision making (95). American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology. Retrieved from: https://www.aacap.org/AACAP/Families_and_Youth/Facts_for_Families/FFF-Guide/The-Teen-Brain-Behavior-Problem-Solving-and-Decision-Making-095.aspx 

Family Zone (2021). Coming of age on social media: the 13+ age restriction and other fictions. Family Zone. Retrieved from: https://www.familyzone.com/anz/families/blog/coming-of-age-on-social-media-13-plus-age-restriction 

Filucci, S. (2018, June). How to spot fake news and teach kids to be media savvy. Commonsense Media. Retrieved from: https://www.commonsensemedia.org/blog/how-to-spot-fake-news-and-teach-kids-to-be-media-savvy

Han, E. (2021, January 13) Strengthening privacy and safety for youth on TikTok. TikTok Newsroom. Retrieved from: https://newsroom.tiktok.com/en-us/strengthening-privacy-and-safety-for-youth

Howard, J. (2017, December 11). When kids get their first cell phones around the world. CNN. Retrieved from: https://www.cnn.com/2017/12/11/health/cell-phones-for-kids-parenting-without-borders-explainer-intl/index.html

Jargon, J. (2019, June 18). How 13 became the Internet’s age of adulthood. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from: https://www.wsj.com/articles/how-13-became-the-internets-age-of-adulthood-11560850201

Johnson, S. B., Blum, R. W., & Giedd, J. N. (2009). Adolescent maturity and the brain: the promise and pitfalls of neuroscience research in adolescent health policy. The Journal of adolescent health : official publication of the Society for Adolescent Medicine, 45(3), 216–221. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jadohealth.2009.05.016

Konrad, K., Firk, C., & Uhlhaas, P. J. (2013). Brain development during adolescence: neuroscientific insights into this developmental period. Deutsches Arzteblatt international, 110(25), 425–431. https://doi.org/10.3238/arztebl.2013.0425 

Lerner, R.(Ed.), Steinberg, L. (Ed.), (2004) Handbook of adolescent psychology. (2nd ed.) Hoboken, New Jersey. John Wiley and Sons, Inc. Retrieved from: https://dl.uswr.ac.ir/bitstream/Hannan/132211/1/2004%20-%20Handbook%20of%20adolescent%20psychology.pdf

Lynch, M. (2017, October 28). 8 must have digital citizen apps, tools, and resources. The EdTech Advocate. Retrieved from: https://www.thetechedvocate.org/8-must-digital-citizenship-apps-tools-resources/

Martin, T. (2018, June 17) Use this chrome extension to know if you’re reading fake or biased news. Cnet. Retrieved from: https://www.cnet.com/how-to/use-this-chrome-extension-to-know-if-youre-reading-fake-or-biased-news/

Pettis, B. (2020) Sketchy .org websites. dot org does not mean credible: . Retrieved from: http://dotorgdoesntmeancredible.org/

Pytash, K., Walsh-Moorman, B. (2018, December 14). Rethinking Source Information for a Digital Age. International Literacy Association. Retrieved from: https://www.literacyworldwide.org/blog%2Fliteracy-now%2F2018%2F12%2F14%2Frethinking-source-evaluation-for-a-digital-age

Stanford University. Teaching lateral reading. Civics Online Reading. Retrieved from: https://cor.stanford.edu/curriculum/collections/teaching-lateral-reading/

Featured image by Mike Renpening from Pixabay

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3 thoughts on “Rough Waters: Helping Adolescents Navigate Digital Information Sources

  1. Mun Shing

    Hi Deanna, I enjoyed reading your informative post and the topic of investigation. It is comforting to know that in light of a lack of market for tools to help teens evaluate the credibility of digital information sources, there are companies like Tik Tok who are taking the responsible approach of creating a limited version of their app for adolescent users.

    Your post made me think of how some companies designed and simulated phishing scams and put them out as “traps” for employees in a bid to educate them about the dangers of digital complacence. Might this be a viable method to educate students on verifying the credibility of digital information sources?

  2. I found your post very informative! The data regarding the adolescent brain helps explain the potential dangers that web access poses to tweens and teens. Thank you for providing some guidance on how to teach critical evaluation skills. In your experience, what tool, that you have used with your students, has shown the most growth in students’ critical evaluation skills?

  3. Wow, the Trace My Shadow site is awesome. I played around with it for a minute and it found NINETY-TWO traces from my daily use of tech, let alone all the other stuff I occasionally mess with like e-readers and my VR headset.

    One thing I really like on that site is that it provides ideas about stuff you can do to mitigate the traces. It’s empowering to find out about all the traces, but especially to find out what to do about them.

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