By Helen Lee Bouygues | Sep 12, 2019
Parents should be explicit about teaching their children about how to use the internet, and parents.
For children, the internet presents enormous opportunities. My daughter, for instance, has learned foreign languages, honed her math skills and emailed with family from across the world, all online. But the internet also presents enormous risks for children from malicious news sites to deceptive advertising to salacious content. While parental controls and other software can help, the most enduring solution is for children to have the skill of thinking critically. The Reboot Foundation, which I founded to advance critical thinking in education, recently published a Parents’ Guide to Critical Thinking. A group of experts — led by researcher Sébastian Dieguez at the University of Fribourg — spent more than a year pulling together the guide, relying on the latest research in the sciences, and the document brims with tips on how parents can help their children learn to reason in the Digital Age. Here are three important takeaways.
Although the online world presents formidable challenges for kids, most of them are not new.
Deliberate misinformation has long threatened our ability to think clearly, and good citizenship has always required an ability to vet sources, argue dispassionately and consider alternative points of view.
What’s new is the idea that children can start learning to think critically early. Indeed, new research suggests that people can think logically at a very young age, and most children can reason before they can even talk. What’s more, parents can promote the development of reasoning, even at early ages, by creating home environments that encourage intellectual curiosity, open-mindedness, and free expression. All of these are vital to helping children develop full-fledged critical thinking skills. The key is to start early and give children engaging experiences that develop open-mindedness, and logically thinking. This is true for the physical world as well as the online world. One practical takeaway is for parents is to play cooperative games with their children. These games can encourage strategic thinking as well as provide ways to learn about the norms of play. The games also encourage kids to think out loud about their thinking, which is an important reasoning skill.
It’s crucial that children learn to manage their emotions and use them productively. This is important for social relationships, of course. But emotional management is also central to effective critical thinking online. After all, fake news runs on feelings of outrage. Same with weak reasoning. It’s logic based on emotions. To help children, parents should give kids the language to discuss their feelings. By learning how to express their emotions, children can gradually learn to externalize them. Kids will still feel emotions of course — as they should — but they will be better able to put them in the proper context. Kids learn social skills via their environment, and parents should model good emotional management. In other words, parents should try and limit their own tantrums over life’s inevitable trials so that their children won’t burst into a fit of rage because they can’t get a second piece of candy.
Question The Media
As kids grow older, they will inevitably spend time online, and parents should work with their children to understand the risks of the internet. Even at a young age, children should know about the value of privacy — and the dangers of messaging with strangers. Parents should be explicit about teaching their children about how to use the internet, and parents should encourage their children to ask lots of questions about what they see online. When it comes to online news, for instance, one good practice is to confirm information with multiple sources. Education researchers Sam Wineberg and Sarah McGrew refer to this practice as “lateral reading,” and it can be a very effective tool. Limiting digital time is also a good practice. As our research — and the research of others — has shown, too much digital time can hurt academic outcomes, especially for young children. In the end, critical thinking habits can counter the negative effects of online media and allow children to reap the rewards offered by the internet while avoiding the drawbacks. While the internet can be a dark place for kids, it need not be.