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#MomLife: Raising the digitally literate

Here's an easy checklist to start a conversation and guide you and your malleable mini-me toward reliable sources of information
AMCullen-DigitalLiteracy
A.M. Cullen: "I'm striving to raise my kids to live with a healthy degree of skepticism, a genuine respect for experts in their field, a freedom from the fear of being wrong, a fundamental understanding of basic science. I hope you'll try for the same."

We're living in a world completely engulfed by online information. And if the pandemic has shown us anything, it's just how influential misinformation can be. While it may be too late for some of our adults these days lost to the conspiracy-vacuuming rabbit holes of the internet "doing their own research," there is still hope for our younger generation.

Chances are that your kids have seen a lot more on the internet than you're aware of. According to a Calgary-based parenting expert, Judy Arnall, the average Canadian child gets their first smart phone around age 10. (What was your source of the world's information when you were 10?!) We can't protect them from all the "fake news" out there, but we can better equip them to deal with it when they come across it. So here is an easy checklist to start a conversation and guide you and your malleable mini-me toward reliable sources of information.

Who's the author?

This may seem like a simple place to start, but you'd be surprised how sensationalized information will distract a lot of people from investigating who wrote it. I can't emphasize this enough: teach your kids to find information written by respected, recognized, and recent experts in their field. Do some additional research to find out who they are. What makes them an expert? Do they currently work in the area they are talking about? Where did they get their education? Do other experts in the field respect them? And beware of a braggy author constantly referencing their credentials. Someone who is awesome shouldn't need to continuously defend how great they are.

One example I came across was a video about Dr. Christina Parks providing testimony about the dangers of mRNA vaccines. I'll admit, it did look convincing. When I did some additional research to find out who she was, I discovered that even though she did receive a doctorate in cellular and molecular biology back in 1999, she has since been working as a science teacher for an online catholic school. Considering the lion share of mRNA vaccine research has been started in labs around 2007, I would argue that this woman isn't the most reliable person to get information on this subject as her practicing expertise ended in 1999.

The original Vimeo video has since been taken down and online critics have pointed to blatantly false claims made in her statement. If you're curious, you can read one critic's analysis here.

What biases do they hold?

Check if the information is presented clear and unbiased. If it's not, what point of view is the author trying to convince you of? Biased sources are not 'bad,' (heck, this writer is most definitely biased in many of her articles) but know that bias can limit coverage of a debate by only looking at one side. Think critically about what you are reading. What is missing?

Are the author's sources reputable?

There are lots of reputable sources of information written by journalists (who probably aren't experts in the topic they are covering). When the author isn't an expert, look to who they reference as their sources. An example that comes to mind is Wikipedia. The reference site has had a bad rap in previous years, but actually is much more reliable than it used to be. Often you can find a long list of their sources at the end of each article.

Is the publisher reputable?

Consider where the article or video is being published. If the website or YouTube account posts misinformation in their other articles, than be wary of the one you are reading. I've been forwarded a few anti-vaccine videos from AwakeCanada.org. Upon opening, the website header reads "Doctors all over the world urgent warnings of taking the covid 19 vaccine." Disastrous grammar aside, I was more concerned about their feature video by a Dr. Kelly Brogan, who Wikipedia describes as "author of books on alternative medicine who has promoted conspiracy theories and misinformation about discredited medical hypotheses" (originally cited from this site). If that's their best source, what does it suggest about the rest of their information on the website?

Is it correlation or causation?

As depicted in this week's image inspired from a favourite research methods example, beware of those using correlation to argue causation. Yes, (for real) increased ice cream sales correlates (a connection between two or more things) with an increased number of homicides, but does that mean ice cream causes murder? Well, no, in reality both have an unspoken third variable in common: heat. When it's hot, people buy more ice cream, and unrelatedly, murder rates also increase as it gets hotter. It's easy to see the misdirection in this silly example, but others may be trickier to spot. For example, I've seen some debate about the dangers of ventilators. Does being put on ventilators cause an increased risk of death? Or is there an underlying variable that happens to correlate the two? The correlation of death rates to ventilator use may be because individuals who are needing one have respiratory systems that are already shutting down.

Is there loaded or vague language?

Phrases like "many doctors say..." or "other countries are doing..." without citing the sources to back them up are examples of vague language. Their goal is to draw in readership, not produce quality journalism. Also be aware of any buzzwords meant to razz your emotions instead of educationally inform.

How old is your information?

Like the cans in your pantry, information can have a shelf life. If you read a social studies textbook that from the 1960s that talked about the benefits of providing a 'residential education' for Canada's indigenous youth it may be slightly different than current truths of the residential school system. For science, its different because we know there are established truths but also many things we don't know. For new areas of science (like what we're learning about COVID-19) where information is changing because we are constantly learning more, using relevant and recent information is most reliable. Take the time to learn how the science is changing. As Neil DeGrasse says in a New York Times interview this past April, "Once you’ve come up knowing the science and how and why it works and understanding what the bleeding edge of science does, you’re in a position to pass judgment on science-related news."

How "easy" is your information?

Yes, TikTok, YouTube, and memes provide easy, fast, and often entertaining ways of relaying information. Many times, they can be an effective way break down complex accurate information into an accessible format but remember anyone can create them. It's easy to dress up in a tie, sit in front a bookshelf, and claim expertise in a YouTube video. Don't rely solely on the "easy" information. Read the heavier articles and peer-reviewed research to have a full understanding of the topic you're learning about (Google Read and Write can even read it to you!).

Are you dismissing it solely because it doesn't align with your current beliefs?

Lastly, in this increasingly polarizing social climate, don't be quick to dismiss a source simply because it doesn't align with an already established belief. Somewhere on the road to adulthood many of us are taught an overwhelming fear of being wrong, and social media has offered the perfect hill to die on. Maybe it's being surrounded an educational environment six hours a day, but kids seem to be more open to learning new ideas that challenge what they already know. Foster that growth mindset and explore different perspectives with your kids with an open mind.

At the end of the day, I'm striving to raise my kids to live with a healthy degree of skepticism, a genuine respect for experts in their field, a freedom from the fear of being wrong, a fundamental understanding of basic science. I hope you'll try for the same.


A.M. Cullen lives and writes in Fort St. John. Are you parenting in the Peace? Send in your questions, topics, or suggestions for #MomLife to cover at momlife.ahnfsj@gmail.com.