The Digital Life Skills Company CIC – written evidence (DAD0033)
3) What role should every stage of education play in helping to create a healthy, active, digitally literate democracy?
- Democratic societies rely on a well-informed citizenry. While misinformation has existed throughout history, in the digital age it can spread more rapidly and with more devastating consequences than ever before.
- Children and adults alike need to be equipped with the skills to evaluate online content and identify misinformation. At the Digital Life Skills Company (CIC), our goal is to equip children and young people with digital information literacy skills. We have developed and delivered digital information literacy workshops in primary and secondary schools and youth groups throughout the North West for the past 3 years. This is where we shall focus our response to this question.
- Most children have access to internet-enabled devices from an early age, and more young people than ever use the internet as their main source of information. The internet influences people’s beliefs, world views, emotional responses and how we behave. With the proliferation of inaccurate, misleading hateful and harmful content online, it is difficult to think of a time when the need to develop the public’s digital information literacy - the ability to think critically and make balanced judgements about the digital information we use - was more urgent. Without it we can’t have an informed electorate.
- A 2019 report by the DCMS Select Committee called for digital literacy to be the “fourth pillar of education alongside reading, writing and maths,” but the Government rejected the recommendation, responding that “digital literacy is already taught across the national school curriculum”. This is not the case. Our experience reflects the recent report from the National Literacy Trust which found that only 2% of children and young people in the UK have the critical literacy skills to tell if a news story is real or fake and findings from Ofcom and which indicate that although young people are often seen as “digital natives”, in fact they lack the skills and knowledge to tell the difference between fact and fiction online, or discern reliable from misleading sources.
- Although the internet is a primary source of information for most children and young people (more than half of 12-15s rely on Google, YouTube or social media for ‘true or accurate’ news about serious things going on in the world [Ofcom]), many children and young lack a even a basic understanding of the trustworthiness of the platforms they use. For example, most don’t recognise that google doesn’t fact-check the websites it lists, or that YouTube doesn’t remove factually incorrect videos. They don’t know how the algorithms that serve them information when they search online or use social media contribute to misinformation and have little or no understanding of how their behavioural data can be used for highly targeted advertising or propaganda.
- These are some of the comments we’ve heard in our research conversations:
“Students usually think that everything they see online is real.” (Head of ICT, Secondary School, Greater Manchester)
“Conspiracy theories are a real problem. Some of my students genuinely think that the earth could be flat.” (Head of Maths, Secondary School, Buckinghamshire)
“Too many students ‘swallow information as fact’, copying and pasting from the internet without questioning it or being aware that it might not be accurate.” (Head of Biology, Secondary School, Stockport)
- Recognising misinformation can be very difficult – even professional fact-checkers admit they make mistakes. There is a lack of evidence on whether school teachers know how to spot misinformation themselves, however most parents and teachers we speak to admit they feel inadequately experienced and/or skilled to guide children and young people – who have the world’s information (and misinformation) at their fingertips.
- Many teachers we work with feel outdated and poorly-supported to teach this complex and constantly evolving subject – often tending towards an ‘avoidance’ strategy when it comes to digital information. Teachers regularly tell us they - or the school - ban or restrict access to the internet and recommend that young people refer instead to reference books for school work. This approach is failing children and young people who inevitably access their information – be it about schoolwork, health, news or celebrity gossip – via digital sources. Most of the technologies (hardware and software) they access on a daily basis via their personal devices are absent (or blacklisted) from classrooms. Consequently students are failing to learn how to consume digital content with a critical eye, or how to evaluate information using the internet. Meanwhile, their news and social feeds fill up with questionable content.
- Without knowledge of reliable online sources, effective strategies to locate trustworthy information, critical literacy and fact-checking skills, young people are unable to critically evaluate the materials they are exposed to, leaving them vulnerable to misleading and potentially harmful false information. Disadvantaged young people are particularly vulnerable because they are less likely to have access to digital technology, or to receive useful guidance or support at home. (Source: The Princes Trust). Those with poor literacy skills are especially vulnerable to online misinformation, being more likely to rely on video (YouTube in particular) as their primary information source.
- People of all ages need to know how to be discerning consumers of digital information. As our society becomes increasingly divided, more work needs to be done to educate people to recognise misleading media and to encourage people to explore different sides of the same story, including those with different values or political leanings to their own.
- Digital information literacy is fundamental to how children and young people find out about and make sense of the world – from how to spot a hoax, to who to vote for. It informs our understanding of history, science, politics, current affairs, local and global issues. Digital information literacy is essential for an informed electorate, a functioning democracy, and – increasingly - a cohesive and tolerant society. It urgently needs to be embedded into our curriculum as a core learning skill. It is no longer an optional extra.
- Specific recommendations by key stage:
Key Stage 1 Digital information literacy should be integrated into the classroom from an early age - many children access social media (especially YouTube) frequently at this age so their beliefs and world views will be shaped by what they see. (Other children witness their parents or siblings doing so and may infer from this that these are trustworthy sources.)
Children should be given a basic understanding of the fact-checking processes that major platforms they use (Google, YouTube, BBC) do (or don’t) carry out. They should be encouraged to check information they find online with trusted adults (teachers, parents, librarians).
Key Stage 2 At this age, as children go online with increasing autonomy, the classroom can become an important space for discussing current events and how they are portrayed in the media. They should practise answering the question “how do you know?” and learn and practise basic verification techniques.
This age group increasingly uses ‘search’ (search engines such as google) and ‘discovery’ (recommendation engines on their social media/news feeds) for entertainment and to find out about the world, so they should understand how algorithms determine what they see and how this can lead to them seeing factually incorrect materials.
They should also learn how to recognise advertising online, including more covert forms of advertising such as influencer marketing and native advertising.
Key Stage 3 At this age, sharing news stories becomes social fuel and currency, so young people should be taught how to be discerning and responsible users, about their role in shaping the digital media landscape, and how to curate for themselves a balanced mix of credible media.
They should learn:
- about different types of false information and the forms they take
- how digital materials can be manipulated
- practical digital verification techniques
- how online advertising can be personalised and micro-targeted
- about the economics behind the platforms they use, how this influences what they see online
- effective online search skills
They should build on the verification techniques learnt in KS2, be taught to think critically about the materials they see, and given opportunities to evaluate materials they access online.
They should be taught how and where to access a variety of balanced, credible information sources for current affairs and general understanding of the world as well as their schoolwork. By the end of KS3, students should have a knowledge of credibleonline sources for current events, as well as key school subject areas and be regularly carrying out online research and provided with opportunities to reflect on their research practices.
Key Stage 4 and 5 Young people – soon to become eligible to vote - should be prepared with the informational skills needed to assess the quality and credibility of online information. They need to be aware of strategies and tools used to manipulate people for political gain before they leave formal education: disinformation campaigns, microtargeting, dark posts, undisclosed ads, conspiracy theories, sockpuppets, like farms, computational propaganda, bots & botnets, deepfakes etc.
They need to understand how the media can be twisted or manipulated to present a distorted version of the truth, how algorithms prioritise “extreme” content, and why extreme and divisive content is so prevalent online.
By this age, the majority of young people will have been exposed to hate speech online. They should learn how false information can spread hate, fear, manipulate emotions and sow division, and taught practical skills to critique, provide context and debunk false claims.
They should learn about the human motivations and susceptibilities that can fuel the spread of false information enabling them to gain insight into their own actions so they can avoid sharing misinformation themselves.
Finally, they should be supported to find out how other users (peers, teachers) source, filter and sort their information and encouraged to reflect on the strategies they use to assess a source/story’s credibility.
Before they leave school, young people should understand the difference between non-partisan, partisan and hyper-partisan media, and encouraged to seek out and compare sources from a variety of political viewpoints, countries and genres, including those that may have different political leanings to their own.