NJ taking steps to help kids navigate the information shitstorm in which we live

Do you ever wonder what your childhood would’ve been like if you grew up with the technology and media we have today? If you were born in 1990 or earlier, you grew up as, or saw as an adult, the internet experiencing a growth spurt. Maybe you looked up items on AskJeeves. Maybe you slipped an Encarta disc into your CD-ROM to do research for a paper. You put elemental information about yourself, and sometimes cryptic Bright Eyes lyrics, in chat service profiles and on first-generation social networking sites like MySpace. I regularly called home collect from a payphone for Pete’s sake.

A simpler time. Today, kids have more information from more sources available to them more quickly with fewer guardrails than ever. It’s a tsunami of information that doesn’t ebb, reaching them on their phones, tablets, laptops, TVs, video game platforms and more. 

Recognizing this, those that were privileged to grow up before the deluge are seeking to pass legislation in New Jersey that would help kids navigate the digital world. Two bills—Assembly bill 248 and Senate bill 3464—are currently being considered in the statehouse, which would provide a framework for teaching kids in K-12 classes in New Jersey about information literacy.

The Senate bill passed the Senate Education Committee this week.

New Jersey is one of several states taking a proactive approach to teaching kids about their role as information consumers in today’s world, and their responsibilities as publishers. Thirty states either have media or information literacy education legislation on the books or under consideration. 

So what exactly is “information literacy”? The bill defines it as “a set of skills that enables an individual to recognize when information is needed and to locate, evaluate and use effectively the needed information. Information literacy includes digital, visual, media, textual and technological literacy.”

The bill would implement curriculum guidelines that help students navigate the research process, develop skills for using information resources, evaluate information critically and competently, and understand the economic, legal and social issues surrounding the use of information, among other items. 

It’s a bipartisan pair of bills, led by State Senator Michael Testa, indicative of the wide support and demonstrable need for its implementation. 

​​“With the prevalence of information sources in today’s high-tech world, it is imperative that young people learn to navigate the options and understand that not all info on the internet is credible,” says Testa. “Anybody can publish a blog post, podcast or YouTube video, but the information may not be accurate or useful. There is no accountability, so students need to learn how to evaluate the material and use it effectively.”

The bills’ other sponsors are Assemblymen Daniel Benson and Wayne DeAngelo, Assemblywoman Mila Jasey, and Senators Vin Gopal, Robert Singer, and Anthony Bucco.

The bill also has support from ​​the New Jersey Association of School Librarians (NJASL). Librarians would play a critical role in teaching the new curriculum. Writes NJASL in support of the bills: “It’s a smart legislative approach that would create a positive shift in how we teach the core skills of understanding information sources and evaluating the quality of information, all within an ethical framework.”

The bills would require the state education commissioner to set up in-service training on information literacy for school administrators, library media specialists and teachers who will ultimately provide the instruction to students. 

Now, anyone who’s spent any time on social media in the last, oh let’s say six years or so, knows that it’s not exclusively the younger generations that struggle with determining fact from fiction on the internet. That’s an understatement. Recognizing this, some organizations, like the News Literacy Project, are providing critical education to school districts and other interested parties about how to educate young people on the information landscape. 

Writes NLP President and COO Charles Salter recently in The Cap Times: “We live in the most complex information landscape in human history, with disinformation being created more easily and spreading faster online than ever before. A 2019 study by the Stanford History Education Group found nearly 70% of students surveyed could not differentiate between news and advertising on a website. This problem continues into adulthood. And in 2018, the Pew Research Center reported that only 35 percent of adults surveyed could correctly tell the difference between opinion statements and fact-based news. We cannot hope for our democracy to continue unless citizens have the skills they need to sort fact from fiction—a prerequisite to being fully informed, equal participants in all aspects of the democratic process.”

It can get a little discouraging to see the state of social media and the control a few tech companies have over the flow of information, and how its effects ripple throughout society. Making sure kids grow up with a sound foundation of knowledge to navigate information is a critical step toward mitigating the worst effects of the digital age.