How to Raise Citizens in a World of Fake News, Filter Bubbles, and Trolls

Now that one of the ugliest, most divisive and bizarre election in our nation’s history has reached its astonishing conclusion, it’s time to take a step back and ask ourselves, how did we get here, and how do we make sure it never happens again? How do we avoid a repeat of a showdown between two candidates so polarizing that many voted against a candidate rather than for a leader they admired? How do we prevent the hate and vitriol that was displayed from both candidates and their supporters? I have no easy answers for the near future, but I do have hope for the next generation. We can raise our children to responsibly participate in the democratic process. Unfortunately, the skills and knowledge needed for citizenship are not taught in our schools, and are rarely modeled in our culture. That places this crucial job in the hands of conscientious and deliberate parents.

Talk to your kids about politics

 Many families are reluctant to talk about politics because they know from experience how lively discussions can decline into heated arguments. Yet, there is no excuse for not starting with the basic principles of democracy that Americans can all agree on. This year, as my inquisitive five-year-old voted for his gym teacher as “President of the School,” we talked about how lucky Americans are to have the right to choose our leaders, and how important voting is. In a couple of weeks when he asks whatever happened to the “cookies all day” platform that won the election for Mr. Cook, we will have a discussion on the reality of campaign promises. As he gets older, we’ll tackle more complicated and controversial issues, even when my husband and I have quite differing opinions. As a parent, you may find some topics difficult, but remember, if you don’t answer your kids’ questions, somebody else will.

Teach your kids how to read and interpret the news

With virtually every media outlet in the world now at our fingertips, selecting a news source is basically like ordering off a menu based on your own personal tastes and world-views. Human beings naturally gravitate toward information that aligns with our own experiences and confirms our beliefs, and content providers increasingly oblige with the news we want to hear. Despite the potential of social media as a platform for the free exchange ideas, the “filter bubbles” employed by social media companies can easily create a digital echo chamber, where all of your content is shared by like-minded individuals. Even worse, Facebook and Twitter have been used to propagate disinformation, such as the “fake news story” that circulated last week, claiming that Trump won the popular vote as well as the 270 electoral votes needed to take the White House.

Unlike the days when the local paper appeared on your doorstep in the morning, and Walter Cronkite recapped the day’s big events in the evening, the modern news landscape requires a more proactive approach. Teach your children how to fact check, and how to identify slanted reporting. Although there may be some irony in the URL, this article offers some great advice on responsible content consumption. In addition to teaching kids how to interpret the news, I would also recommend setting a good example by reading broadly. Populate your own news feed with a variety of sources that represent multiple perspectives. Allow your own views to be challenged a bit, and you will generally find yourself better equipped to defend your position. Occasionally, you might even find your position changed.

Another news media phenomenon that seems to be overlooked is the acknowledging the difference between news and entertainment. Just like any other goods or services in a capitalist economy, news articles are produced on a supply and demand basis. Unfortunately, sensational headlines are in much higher demand than more serious news stories. With an endless stream of quality entertainment available on demand, our attention spans and tolerance of anything “boring” has plummeted. As parents, it’s important to teach our children to separate facts from sensationalism, and not to treat news outlets as sources of entertainment. There’s nothing wrong with consuming content for entertainment purposes, but being well informed about less glamorous current events is just as much a civic duty as voting.

Introduce children to real debate

It’s a sad state of affairs when conscientious parents of school-aged children deem the presidential debates inappropriate viewing. Unfortunately, the spectacle that took place this fall bore no resemblance to the civil, constructive form of debate that is crucial to a successful democracy. The most-anticipated engagement between our final two candidates for leader of the free world degraded to finger pointing and name-calling. If my own social media feed is any indication, respectful disagreement is a lost art. Differences of opinion have been elevated to moral shortcomings, while tolerance is demanded by both parties and demonstrated by neither. This has to stop, and the first step is for parents to model for our children an abundance of respect and tolerance. This includes showing respect for our country and our system, and showing kindness to all.

The second step is to teach our kids how to disagree with someone. They must learn that name-calling is never productive, as it only reflects poorly on you. Show kids how to put themselves in someone else’s shoes to understand another’s point of view. Demonstrate how to discuss a controversial topic without getting angry, and explain to them the value of diversity of thought. Finally, teach your kid that they are allowed to have their own opinion and that you will love and respect them no matter what. Of course it is appropriate to enforce and teach your own values, but if thinking for oneself is one of those values, your children will be much more likely to stay true to your principles. Remember that how you treat them is the primary example they will use when dealing with other people.

Make a difference

Being a parent is a demanding job, but taking a few steps towards raising kids to be responsible citizens and good neighbors is something any one can do. By harnessing the occasional teachable moment with care and intention, we can ensure that the great American experiment in democracy can successfully continue for generations to come. And while we’re on the topic, I would also advocate holding these lessons loudly and in public areas in the hopes that the current generation of voters just might take note.

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