Remember when, if you wanted to know something, you went to the library and checked out a book? Now, thanks to the Internet, students have access to more information at the click of a button than the libraries of yesterday could ever hold. Unfortunately, not all of that information is of good quality, or even correct, and since the average webpage visit is less than 20 seconds, it can be hard for students to discriminate between high-quality material and junk. Regardless, it’s inevitable that students will have to learn to navigate among the distractions, the disingenuous and the downright dangerous on the Internet. Here are a few principles to teach students about Internet research.
- Quality Varies. Without the guiding hand of editors and publishers, the quality of material published on the Internet varies greatly. Teach your child to check the URL and be wary of any site that does not list an author or a way to contact the site administrator. Look for sites managed by reputable institutions, like nationalgeographic.com/ or solarsystem.nasa.gov/kids. Keep an eye on the date of publication or “last updated” date and make sure they understand the difference between .com, .org, and .gov designations.
- Accuracy Varies. Without the backing of a publisher whose reputation is on the line, and within the anonymity provided by digital media, anyone can publish anything, anytime. Case in point: Google-image the words, “Africa” and “map,” and you will see nestled among the pictures what is clearly the outline of South America. Verifying the accuracy of information is a must. Teach your children to fact-check, using multiple sources; using their common sense; and when in doubt, to ask an adult.
- Motives Vary. It is sometime hard to discern if a well-designed site is simply stating information or is a well-designed advertisement. Help your children understand the differences in the types of sites and reasons why people publish information. Understanding an author’s motivations will help young readers better identify biases and inaccuracies.
- Directness varies. We’ve all been to sites where information is excessively hyperlinked, allowing for increased ad space and annoying pop-ups. For distractible students, it can be easy to get off-task and end up on sites that may be inappropriate. Before they fall into the rabbit hole, be sure to discuss staying on topic; set some guidelines, and monitor their progress.
My two favorite websites for teaching kids discernment when using the Internet are Help Save the Endangered Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus from Extinction at zapatopi.net/treeoctopus/ and the website for Dihydrogen Monoxide Research Division, which details the danger of this erosive poisonous chemical (water!) at www.dhmo.org/. It’s almost impossible at first glance to tell that both these sites are completely false and that they illustrate how a well-put-together site can be misleading. As information becomes more and more digitized, it is important that children develop discernment when wading through the vast amounts of information available at the touch of a button, so that they can navigate on the information highway without being tangled in the net.