For today's teens, social media is their primary news source. According to a study by the University of Chicago, nearly half of young people age 15--25 get news at least once a week from family and friends via Twitter or Facebook. And they can't necessarily tell fact from fiction. The presidential candidates now use Twitter to spin their messages and slam their opponents. One of the study's conclusions: "Youth must learn how to judge the credibility of online information and how to find divergent views on varied issues."
The media plays a huge role in our country's political process. And with the 24/7 news cycle, those effects are magnified. On the plus side, there are plenty of age-appropriate resources at your fingertips, some of which we've listed below. Here's how you can help your kids become media-savvy participants in democracy.
Seek out kid-friendly news. Turn to news sources designed for kids, such as HTE Kids News, Time for Kids, and Scholastic Kids Press Corps. These news websites break down the events of the day in age-appropriate terms, while avoiding stuff you probably won't want them exposed to.
Decode ads. When a political ad comes on TV or is striped across or down the side of a computer screen, talk to your kid about the claims the ad is making and how music and visuals are used to persuade viewers. Talk about why there are so many negative ads -- and why they work.
Read kid-friendly books about American politics. Check out Bad Kitty for President, which does a surprisingly good job of explaining the U.S. political system. And since candidates are always referring to the founding fathers, find out what they were really like in The Founding Fathers: Those Horse-Ridin', Fiddle-Playin', Book-Readin', Gun-Totin' Gentlemen Who Started America. See Where Was Patrick Henry on the 29th of May? and Why Don't You Get a Horse, Sam Adams? for a taste of colonial-era politics.
Keep the bombast at bay. Kids may not understand concepts such as abortion, guns, troops, and immigration, but they can certainly feel the emotion behind the rhetoric. Try to change the station and mute the TV when you can. Kids will pick up on your reactions -- and they sometimes feel at fault for causing them -- so if a candidate makes you mad, explain that the man or woman on TV made you feel that way and why.
Middle School Kids
Watch one or more of the many televised candidate debates. Discuss the issues during the commercials and after it's over. Ask your kid: Whom do you think won, and why? Did the moderator challenge the candidates or just let them spout their talking points?
Talk about political advertising. How is a political ad like a regular commercial for a product? Is it selling a candidate just like another sells cereal? Who paid for the ad you're watching? Can political ads actually influence the outcome of an election? Watch political movies to see how fictional political strategies mirror real-life ones.
Share political cartoons. Mocking the candidates is a long-cherished tradition Americans can enjoy in the name of free speech. Poking fun of politicians takes some bite out of their often harsh statements, shows kids that challenging bold claims is part of our political process, and offers a sense of relief when the campaign rhetoric heats up.
Ask how elections really work. Draw a link between your kids' experience of student body elections or mock presidential elections at school and those on the state and national levels. Are elections just a popularity contest, or does someone win because he or she has the best ideas?
De-fang hate speech and fear-mongering. Be sensitive to the fact that when candidates unleash extreme, zealous statements, they can stir up scary emotions (worry, confusion, fear, anxiety) in tweens. Explain that candidates intentionally try to appeal to people's emotions to gain an advantage over their rivals and that some candidates will resort to insulting, bullying, and even lying. Tell your kids that much of what the candidates say simply isn't true. See if you can get your kids to pick out the kinds of statements that are attention-getting vs. meaningful comments about what policies the candidates would institute if elected.
High School Kids
Watch news and debates together. Compare the media coverage on different shows and networks. Do reporters, news anchors, and opinion shows spend too much time on distractions that heat up the news cycle rather than on the real issues facing our country? Check the credibility of candidates' claims at the nonpartisan site FactCheck.org.
Talk about the influence of polls. A lot of what drives momentum in campaigns are the latest poll results, reported on news shows and websites. Your family may be getting calls at home from pollsters or one of the campaigns asking whom you'll vote for. How might polls influence people? Are polls accurate predictors of election-day results? Send teens to Reddit, where they can share, rank, and discuss the news.
Discuss the role of social media in elections. Do your teens follow any politicians on Twitter or other feeds? What kinds of posts earn your teen's respect, and what kinds erode it? Is it risky to talk politics with friends online if you disagree?
Remind them not to believe everything they read. Encourage them to get out from behind their computers with Rock the Vote, which uses music and pop culture to engage teens.
Talk about fear and hate-mongering among politicians. Teens are old enough to understand that extreme positions and outrageous comments attract attention -- and sometimes that's all politicians want. Why do candidates make offensive statements, and what impact do zealous positions have on voters and the political process? Do you pay more attention when a candidate is making outrageous statements or discussing actual policy? How much of what a candidate says is designed to appeal to voters' emotions?