Search it. Click it. And encourage kids to ask questions.

Jan 22, 2016

Every week it seems like some organization puts out a list of guidelines for how children should engage with online content. This week Common Sense Media jumped into the fray with a Twitter post including a link to “Responsible Search Strategies for Kids”. I’m always interested to see how people or organizations frame these sorts of tips, so I clicked.

The information is…fine. Mainly a rehash of tips that many organizations suggest; use parental control filters; keep the computer in a common area of the house; be present when your kids are online. Nothing particularly insightful. This might be because the article is dated from 2013. Not sure why there was a tweet today for something initially posted several years ago, but that’s the value of dated information. (See #3 below)

What does concern me are the suggestions that were missing from their list. Not one suggestion states “Sit with your kids and talk about different kinds of search strategies”. The “older kids” section suggests, “Explain that Internet searching can be risky”. Really? We’re waiting to say that ‘til the kids are “older”? And what does “risky” even mean to a kid (even an older one)?

This information is simply not helpful enough and not realistic for the way kids use the Internet. It’s all about DANGER and RISK and FEAR. But accessing information online is one of the great wonders of our world! It is super cool that I can search for the words to my favorite kids TV show theme song from the 70’s and find it instantly. (For the record, that would be H.R. Pufinstuf.) If we want kids to be open to our suggestions about “responsible search strategies” we need to first join them in the wonder and joy they feel when they play online. Conveying a bit more “so amazing”, and less “so dangerous”.

Learning responsible search strategies is a game just waiting to be played. The next time your child has a naturally curious question IRL (in real life), suggest that you go online together and find the answer. Ask your child, “What words should we search to find this out?”– then let them type those words in the search bar and hit “return”. (If your child is too young to type or spell, of course you should jump in and help out. Otherwise, keep your hands off.) When the results pop up, look at them together.

Which result should we click on?


OK, click on it. (Child clicks. You watch.)

Did we get the information we wanted? If not, maybe we should try a different search. Let’s try again. Play around with it. How might changing one word change the results?

Landing on the wrong content is, as they say, a teachable moment. Yikes, this isn’t the content we were hoping for! What did we type that made that mistake? Let’s try again with different words.

If your child is a bit older, jump on those moments when real life presents a searchable opportunity. Going to the movies? Let your child search the movie times online and find the best theater. Trying to figure out if school will be closed due to a snow storm? Let your child figure out how to get the information online. Need a new pair of sneakers? Let them find the top five places based on price. Concerned about a friend acting meanly? Search for ways to talk to a friend who’s hurt you. If we want kids to develop responsible search strategies we need to give them opportunities to try and fail and try again. I know many families and experts are down on using technology during a family dinner, and I often agree, unless the technology is part of how the family connects to one another. In my house, we have an iPad on the kitchen table and when someone brings up a topic at dinner, any one of us may jump online and find the answer in the moment.

I understand the concerns. The Internet is a vast pool of everything. No one wants to watch their child land on a website with pornographic content and simply say “let’s try that search again dear”. That’s why it’s key to talk about it and do the search together. If your child wants to type “Dirty Girls” into the search bar to find ways to cleanup after a muddy game of slip-n-slide, you certainly want to jump in before she hits “return” and ask “might someone else think ‘dirty’ means something different?”, or simply say “dirty girls isn’t really clear enough, let’s write exactly what we need to know– how to cleanup after a muddy slip-n-slide”. Search engine algorithms have gotten so advanced it’s highly likely you’ll find the answer or information you need if you type in your precise question, and not a generalized version of it.

Once they land on a site you can start asking questions about the information on the site. One of the Common Sense Media tips states “Make sure your kids can figure out whether a site is credible or not”. Great advice…but how should they do that? Many adults don’t know how to do that. In fact, last week I asked my college students to rank the items they felt most knowledgeable about regarding writing a research paper. One of the statements said “I have a method for evaluating website sources.” It was the lowest rated statement on 100% of the surveys! Educators tell kids to look for information about who owns the website. But how should they do that? Kids need detailed suggestions. (See below for some detailed suggestions.)

I think the key to almost ALL parental guidelines for children’s media use is starting early. And I mean really early. My philosophy is, if your child is old enough to hold a media device, they’re old enough to start gaining media literacy skills about using that media device. Start early. Then, ramp up the level of discussion depending on the age of the child. Clearly, you can’t convey media use guidelines to a 2 year old in the same way you can to a ten year old. But since both are using media, both need to gain some media literacy skills. (Maybe I’ll write guidelines for that next week.)

How to decide if a website is credible:

  1. Figure out who owns the website or runs it.

This should always be the very first bit of information you look for when visiting any website for the first time. Start by looking for the “about us” information. If you can’t find any place on the website labeled “about us” or a close approximation, stop right there. The site deserves no more of your time. That sort of information should be transparent to the user. If it’s not, don’t use it. If it does have an “about us” section, look for real names of the people who work there, not just some vague statement like “we have years of experience” or “we really care about this issue”. Does it say “Sherri Hope Culver has been working in media for X years and has worked at…”. Look for details. No details? On to a new website.

  1. Figure out who wrote the specific information you’re reading

Step 1 is figuring out who is in charge of the entire website. But that information may or may not be the same as finding out who wrote the content on the specific page or article you’re reading. The article author might not have the same credentials as the people running the website. Does the content on the page list a specific person as the author? In a reputable site you can often click on that person’s name and access a short bio, as well as a list of all articles they’ve written for that site. You can always do a separate search on that person and discover more details about their background and experience. But just as often, the author’s name isn’t provided. I consider this a red flag. It’s not an automatic stopper for me. But it speaks to the lack of accountability for the information.

  1. Look for a date

Reputable websites provide context for their information and a date provides context. It tells you whether the information has been there for a day, a week, or ten years. Older information is more likely to be wrong. Not always. But without a date you have no way of knowing if this information is based on recent life as we know it, or life from twenty years ago. And don’t assume that it “sounds” recent because there’s a reference to something that happened recently. Depending on what you’re searching, data may be changing every day or every hour. Find the date.

  1. Assess the quality of the writing

While a blog will have a more informal style than an academic website or a news source, overall the writing should reflect a writer with skill. Some elements should be a red flag to distrust the site, such as spelling errors, poor grammar, or mistakes in punctuation. The author might be brilliant, but errors such as these are a sign that no one else is reading over this information before it is posted. And that’s a sign that the information is just the voice of one person. If that one person is highly experienced in a specific area, you might decide the site is still worth your time. (and that leads you back to point #1) Otherwise, find a different website.

    5. Consider the domain or file extension

Is the site a .com? .edu? .org? .gov? or one of the new dots? (i.e. .tv) This isn’t a sure sign of anything, but it can help to assess credibility. A dot org site should either be a nonprofit or be mission-directed (rather than money-directed). But not always. A dot edu site is connected to an educational institution and hopefully can be more trusted for educational content. A dot gov site is a government site. Assess its trustworthiness depending on your own feelings about trusting the government.

  1. Consider how it looks

Assessing the style and design of a website is NOT a good way to judge its trustworthiness. There are numerous places online offering beautiful free templates for web design. Years ago this might have been a decent evaluation tool. Not so much anymore.

Link to Common Sense Media article: