Online reasoning skills for kids are critical

When my generation were kids before anyone had really heard of the internet let alone slipped on a pair of virtual boardshorts and tried to surf it… facts and information were a little harder to come by.

If you had a school assignment chances are your mum and dad would direct you to a series of heavy, leather-bound textbooks lined up on the family bookshelf.

For a long time, the encyclopedia held all the answers to life’s big questions, everything from the mating habits of aardvarks to a complete history of Zionism.

As clunky as these books were by today’s standards, one thing you could be sure of was they were carefully curated and fact checked. 

Today, my own kids are literally swamped with information. The challenge facing them is no longer thumbing through stuffy books to find that elusive fact – it’s deciphering that one fact from the many fictions.

Be it a video showing someone shockingly taking their own life or another claiming the COVID-19 pandemic is a hoax, or even a one-sided news story shared on their social media feed, kids need to be aware that every piece of digital media has a hidden agenda. It might be for monetary purposes, to shock,  or to change your viewpoint. 

Kids must now apply sophisticated critical reasoning to every piece of information they consume and this ability to think critically can often be a first line of defence in keeping our kids safe online. 

Much like the very successful Stranger Danger lessons we were all taught in school, kids need to now apply similar lessons to online interactions. 

Is this person I’m talking to really who they say they are and, why are they asking me to send photos of myself?  My school principal told us not to seek out the suicide video going viral on Tik Tok – but how bad can it be?

While we want our kids to use good judgement and critical thinking to keep them safe and combat misinformation, it’s also important to remember, when it comes to many of the platforms they use, it’s not really a fair fight. 

Like the fast-food giants, most tech giants, whether they be Google, Facebook, Youtube or TikTok all use their own brand of secret sauce to keep us coming back for more. 

It comes in the form of opaque algorithms that analyse our every move on their platforms and use that information to find ways to keep us there. 

At times these hidden online forces guiding our decisions and choices might seem relatively benign and even helpful, especially when they recommend a song we like or a new product that we suddenly wonder how we ever lived without.

Where it gets serious, however, is if I relied solely on say Facebook or YouTube for my news, I may spend my whole life stuck in an artificial 'filter bubble' only hearing one viewpoint – and potentially an increasingly extreme one. 

With over 2.7 billion Facebook users worldwide, and 1.5 billion YouTube users, it’s easy to see how these two monster platforms could have a profound influence on the people who use them. 

Now more than ever – at a time when we are blessed with access to almost limitless information – we need to be critical of what our children are consuming online, as well as how and when they are consuming it.   

Whether it’s a suicide video gone viral or the latest flavour of misinformation, it is not a matter of 'if' our children will come across something inappropriate or harmful online, it is a matter of when.  

I’m not recommending you rush out and buy an old set of encyclopedias for your kids just yet, but we all need to ensure we’ve armed them with the best decision-making skills to keep them safe online, and help them sort the fact from the fiction … the real from the fake. 

This is the full version of an opinion piece by eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant, originally published in The Sunday Telegraph, 4 October 2020.