Reading, writing and … disinformation: should schoolchildren be taught media literacy like maths?

<span>Australia lags among advanced democracies in educating young people on media literacy, an expert says.</span><span>Photograph: Oksana Kuzmina/Alamy</span>
Australia lags among advanced democracies in educating young people on media literacy, an expert says.Photograph: Oksana Kuzmina/Alamy

Beneath an old Queenslander on the south side of the Brisbane River, beside a garage with a hand-painted sign that reads “recording” and above a computer in a cluttered spare room, is a Post-it note.

“Sugar-coated broccoli,” it reads.

The home – “not unlike Bluey’s” – belongs to Bryce Corbett and doubles as an unofficial headquarters of the children’s news podcast he founded and co-presents, Squiz Kids. The note, its guiding philosophy.

Daily episodes tackle a headline story – like South Australia’s proposal to ban children from social media – covered to inform, but not frighten, kids. That’s the broccoli. The coating: a bit of fun science, pop culture and, of course, animal stories – the alligator that came to school, the world’s funniest crab joke.

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Corbett’s chat, too, is professional yet upbeat. Upbeat, that is, until asked about the emergent media landscape into which children are entering at an increasingly young age.

“I don’t think it is overblown to say that we are sleepwalking our way into a dystopian future,” he says.

“Misinformation and disinformation, the rate at which it is being peddled and believed and shared by a naive global populace is, I think, the biggest threat to democracies around the world,” says Corby, who has worked in journalism and media for more than two decades.

The impacts of poor media literacy upon society are not limited to the ballot box. Misinformation has been linked to a spate of bloody coups – successful and thwarted – around the world and major powers have accused one another of weaponising it on an industrial scale to stoke division and conflict. The proliferation of conspiracy theories and the erosion of trust in science, expertise and institutions threatens to compromise everything from action on the climate crisis to preventing the spread of pandemics. On the less extreme end of the spectrum, and more generally, a media-literate population is an essential component of an active and informed citizenry.

Most children are not getting access to regular media literacy education that would help them

Tanya Notley, Western Sydney University

Corbett says the insidious nature of misinformation was made clear to him about eight years ago at the family dinner table when his children started regurgitating dubious “facts” they had come across on social media. When it came to mis- and disinformation, he realised, his own children were like an unvaccinated person exposed to a novel virus.

“It all felt like a really big hole in the education of these kids that needed to be filled,” he says.

Corbett is not alone in that belief. Information systems and communications researchers say the scale and magnitude of change to the means through which we make sense of the world is such that media literacy ought be a bedrock of education.

However, according to Tanya Notley, an associate professor in digital media at Western Sydney University, Australia is a global laggard on this front among advanced democracies.

“Our research suggests most children are not getting access to regular media literacy education that would help them to verify misinformation,” she says. “We really need to be doing more”.

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Since 2017, Notley has led three national surveys into young Australian’s media habits.

The results have not all been bleak. Notley, who was the Australian Media Literacy Alliance’s deputy chair for three years until last December, says they show children and young people do value news and that, while social media is a rising and major source of information, parents – and to a lesser extent, teachers – remain their most common and preferred news source.

But some of her findings can’t be sugar-coated. The 2023 study showed that just 41% of children aged eight to 16 are confident they could tell fake news from real news stories. Just one in four young people said they had received a lesson at school in the past year to help them work out if news stories are true and can be trusted.

“Clearly, not enough is happening,” Notley says.


The media environment children and young people are growing up into is more complex than that which their parents entered at the same age, with polarised news sources, social media hot-takers, a general decline in news consumption and the emerging issue of generative AI and deep fakes. A University of Queensland associate professor in information systems, Stan Karanasios, recently made three recommendations as to what can be done to protect our society from generative AI’s ability to put “fake news on steroids”. Number two is “to teach media literacy in the same way we teach maths”.

Karanasios points to a recent French report that spoke of the technology industry’s “strategy of capturing children’s attention, using all forms of cognitive bias to shut children away on their screens, control them, re-engage them and monetise them”.

Teach media literacy in the same way we teach maths

Stan Karanasios, University of Queensland

Once they start getting their news from social media, Karanasios says, it can be “very difficult to tell what is real and what is not real”.

“That report really puts the blame back on the tech companies and argues that we need to protect our young people,” he says. “These tech companies have used hundreds of millions of dollars of research into getting people to use these technologies, so the idea that parents simply using parental controls and having a quick conversation with their children is going to make a difference is probably a bit naive.”


Concerns more generally about social media and its mental health and wellbeing effects on young people has prompted calls by the prime minister and premiers of New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria and South Australia to lift age minimums on social media platforms.

But such proposals have met a cooler response from digital literacy experts and advocates. Their position can be neatly summed up by Corbett. Tech-savvy young people, the journalist and entrepreneur says, will find a way around bans and age restrictions.

“So does it not make more sense to educate kids?” he asks.

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To that end, Squiz Kids launched a pilot program in November 2022 called Newshounds. The program is a free, curriculum-aligned, eight-part podcast and workbook-based module aimed at teaching primary school students to spot misinformation and “sensitise kids to the concept of not believing everything they see online”.

To date, SquizKids reports that 2,608 teachers have signed up to Newshounds (100 of which are from New Zealand). The program has received no government funding. “We can’t keep doing it for free forever,” says Corbett.

“At the moment, given there is really little out there – especially for primary school teachers – [this] could have a really important place for teachers who, through no fault of their own, have really little understanding of media literacy,” says Queensland University of Technology’s Dr Amanda Levido, who independently assessed the Squiz Kids pilot.

The Albanese government, in its October 2022 budget, allocated $6m towards media literacy products to be delivered through the Alannah and Madeleine Foundation, as part of what the minister for communications, Michelle Rowland, says is a “methodical and holistic approach to keeping Australians safe online, including by providing young people with the tools they need to be safe digital citizens”.

It’s critical [schoolchildren] have the skills they need to discern fact from fiction and keep themselves safe online

Michelle Rowland

Between launch on 1 July 2023 and the end of March this year, some 98 secondary schools registered for the foundation’s eSmart Media Literacy Lab, reaching more than 8,000 students. This January the foundation launched an eSmart Digital Licence+ to primary schools in the country, and as of the end of March 49 schools had registered for it. A junior digital licence for students aged five to nine will be launched in the second half of this year.

“Australian schoolchildren are now the second generation of digital natives, and it’s critical they have the skills they need to discern fact from fiction and keep themselves safe online,” Rowland said in a statement.

Still, says Notley, the Newshounds program has the greatest reach in terms of primary schoolchildren, and she is concerned about the lack of funding for it. “Services like this should remain free to schools and it’s hard to see how this can happen without government support,” she says.

There are other programs, of course, trying to engage children with news. Notley praises the ABC’s TV program Behind the News, which has been reaching Australian children for more than five decades and identifies ABC Education, the Museum of Australian Democracy and the National Film and Sound Archive as having the greatest reach for high school media literacy education. She and Levido say programs like Newshounds need to be a part of a much broader strategy, and that there must be transparent and competitive processes for providers to bid for government funding.

Related: Can we still handle the truth? Journalism, ‘alternative facts’ and the rise of AI | Lenore Taylor

“We need a media literacy national policy,” Notley says. “And that kind of document exists in lots of countries now – in Finland, Brazil.”

Finland has been held up as a “gold standard” for decades, she says, embedding media literacy in education from kindergarten.

Brazil made tackling mis- and disinformation a priority after it suffered a coup attempt early last year and saw thousands of people die unnecessarily from Covid due to misinformation, Notley says. The government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva created an office of media literacy and a media education strategy, she says, set “really big targets” for training teachers and made disinformation the theme of an “education Olympics”.

“That has happened in a year, so I think it shows how quickly things can be turned around when there is a government who believes this is an important priority.”