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Media literacy: helping your child find truth (and stay healthy and safe) in a fake news world

Tuesday, February 27, 2018
By Richard Chung, MD, for KidsFirst

Children interact with media—TV, radio, online, and in print—every single day. As with many things, there is significant value in media, but also attendant risks.

Parents and healthcare professionals are well aware of crucial developmental milestones as children grow up. However, among those milestones, developing media literacy is typically forgotten—although most would agree that it is one of the most important skills for children to have today.

Media literacy is defined as the ability to question, analyze, and understand media content. Although it may not seem obvious, media literacy is a health issue. Research shows that it shapes how young people find health information and make health-related decisions. Some media can also cause emotional upset, lead to poor lifestyle choices, or even encourage risky behaviors, so skillfully navigating media content can have important health implications.

Although as parents and healthcare professionals our first instinct is to protect children from any and every potential risk and danger, we must go beyond protecting them to preparing and educating them to deal with media that they encounter in a productive and healthy way.

 Although it may not seem obvious, media literacy is a health issue. Research shows that it shapes how young people find health information and make health-related decisions.

Here are some parenting tips to help teach kids the core skills they need to think critically about today's media:

Ask questions regularly.

  • Who created this media message, and what is its purpose?
  • What values and perspectives are conveyed positively? Negatively?
  • What is missing in this message (incomplete facts to support the conclusion)?
  • How might different people interpret this message?
  • Is there a hidden message that the author is trying to convey?

Treat media as another “environment” in your child's life. In both tangible and virtual environments parents can and should encourage positive activities, set limits, monitor, and discuss. The “media environment” of children includes everything from the family room, to the classroom, to billboards on the side of the road. It is a complex environment with both positive and potentially negative exposures.

Role-model media literacy. Spend time searching online, listening to the radio, and reading articles together. Demonstrate how you critique content and encourage your child to question and be skeptical. Sorting facts from fiction, identifying commercial influences, and recognizing biases require a constant questioning posture that children will learn best from your example.

Finally, protect AND prepare. Do whatever you can within reason to keep your children away from negative exposures, but also prepare them to navigate the media landscape on their own. It will take time and some trial and error, but they will be better off as a result.

Richard Chung, M.D. is the director of Adolescent Medicine at Duke University in Durham, NC.



Related resources

Center for Media Literacy

PBS Parents

Center on Media and Child Health

Common Sense Media


“KidsFirst” is a blog, hosted by the Duke Department of Pediatrics, that provides high quality information to families on a wide range of important child health topics.