This story is part of Protect Your Parents From the Internet Week.
“Look for the magnifying glass icon,” said Patrick Costales as he pointed to a tablet showing YouTube on its screen.
Costales, 15, was teaching Michele Bianchi, 81, how to search for episodes of Bianchi’s favorite Italian TV shows. This was the fifth Saturday in a row they’d met in the basement of a Toronto library so the teenager could show Bianchi how to email, read news, listen to music, and perform other online tasks as part of a program called Cyber Seniors.
After the session, Costales sat next to his friend and fellow tutor, Mareson Suresh, 15, to discuss the online behavior of the older people in their lives. Had they ever seen an adult post something problematic on social media?
“Frequently,” said Costales.
“My mom loves taking pictures, and even if she says she won’t post it, she posts it,” Suresh said. “And the thing is, I don't follow her on Facebook or anything because I don't use Facebook, but she’s big on it.”
Be it personal photos or false or inflammatory articles and memes, young people find themselves struggling to manage, and at times confront, the extremely online adults in their lives.
Boomers and older generations are by no means the only people having trouble in our new and chaotic information environment, although research suggests they have the most pressing challenges. Younger people also face difficulty, which is why so many news literacy programs target K-12 and college students. But the rapid pace of change on online platforms — and the lack of widespread reach of programs like Cyber Seniors — have left some older adults struggling to catch up.
The challenge is to handle the situation in a way that works and doesn’t fray intergenerational relationships, according to Mike Caulfield, director of blended and networked learning at Washington State University Vancouver. He also runs the Digital Polarization Initiative, which pioneers new approaches to teaching information literacy. Caulfield said his students see the need for older people in their lives to learn the skills he’s teaching.
“Students in every class said, ‘This is great, [now] what are you going to do about the adults?’ It’s one of the consistent things that come up. And it’s not half jokingly; I feel like it’s very sincere,” he said. “I do feel when they bring this up, they have very specific people in mind.”
Fortunately, Caulfield and other experts have advice.
So does Suresh, one of the Toronto teens who’s spent weeks helping seniors master the basics of devices and the internet. “Just say it,” he said. “I know it's weird talking to your family about those specific topics, but it'll benefit them much more ... so you just might as well say it as soon as possible.”
Supply the Missing Context
This one might be called the John Cusack Problem.
Last month the actor tweeted a cartoon that showed a hand emblazoned with the Star of David seeming to crush a group of people. Near it was the quote "To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize." It was attributed to Voltaire, but the line actually originated with white nationalist Kevin Alfred Strom. Cusack, 53, also added his own comment to the tweet: “Follow the money.”
After facing blowback for the anti-Semitic message, Cusack blamed a “bot.” Then he said he didn’t understand the implications of what he shared. “I mistakenly retweeted an alt right account I thought was agreeing with the horrible bombing of a hospital in Palestine,” he tweeted.
Caulfield said it’s common for older people to unwittingly share things that have extremist messages or iconography. “It's very hard to see people posting stuff that may come from a kind of a dark place that they don't realize is dark,” Caulfield said. “What do you do when your parents go from posting Minions to posting hard-right memes about cement milkshakes?”
He says it’s important to intervene privately and help the person understand the larger — and more concerning — context.
“There's a good chance your family member doesn't understand that and might be horrified at what they're sharing. And so there’s a point to intervene and let people know, ‘Hey, I know, this was probably not what you meant, but…’”
Keep It Positive and Personal
Experts agree that being non-confrontational is key. Daniel Kent founded Net Literacy, a nonprofit, in 2003 when he was in middle school in Indiana. One of its first programs was Senior Connects, which helps older people get online and gain basic internet skills.
“I think it’s fundamentally about treating [older people] with concern and respect. Recognizing that ... perhaps they had the best of intentions, but the execution on their part perhaps wasn't the most, the most thoughtful and mindful,” he said.
If you do want to say something, Kent and Caulfield suggest engaging in person — or by direct message or phone if that’s not possible. If you call someone out publicly on Facebook or elsewhere, they’re likely to feel attacked or shamed, and you won’t have a chance to hear why they wanted to share a particular piece of content. Understanding where someone is coming from and why they shared or posted what they did is essential, Kent and Caulfield say.
“With our volunteers [we] preach as much empathy as possible,” Kent said.
But Don’t Be Afraid to Go Public
While engaging privately is often best, there are cases where you may want to intervene publicly. For example, if an acquaintance is sharing false or misleading information that’s generating lots of engagement.
“You can think of yourself as intervening not really to stop the poster, but intervening on behalf of your friends who are seeing this and may get suckered by it,” he said.
The rule of not being aggressive or confrontational still applies. He suggested acknowledging the original poster’s sentiment, adding to the discussion by sharing an alternate report about the same topic, and saying why it offers a more accurate portrayal.
Get Them to Google (News) It
When someone in your life seems to share information that’s unmoored from reality, try to understand what emotion, opinion, or idea the person is trying to express — and shift them toward a better place to get that information.
“You push them to a better source that is related to their concern,” said Caulfield.
One caveat: If the particular idea or claim is odious or clearly false, it’s not your job to help them express it. “If they're a white supremacist, don't validate their concern,” he said. “But if they have a concern that is is somewhat valid, that comes from valid worries, you can empathize.”
Caulfield suggests encouraging the person to search for the central topic or claim on Google News, which exercises control over which websites are included in its database. This helps locate a story from a more credible source that still acknowledges their point of view or emotion.
“Nine times out of 10, you could make your point with a story from USA Today,” said Caulfield. “It might not be the same clickbait headline, but it takes you 10 seconds to go find an [alternate] story.”
This exercise also exposes the person to different headlines about the same topic, helping them see which facts are broadly consistent across different outlets, or not. “There's just something that is really powerful about going to Google News and scanning those headlines and seeing, ‘Hey, look, one of these headlines is not like the others,’” he said.
Look in the Mirror
Be self-aware enough to realize you may also not have the best information-consumption habits, either. Practice finding other sources for a story and compare details to learn to spot inconsistencies between coverage. Then share the good stuff. You can also choose to do that instead of intervening with friends and family.
“In most cases, you're better off sharing new material with family members that will resonate with them or focusing correction efforts on people with bigger platforms than Uncle Rick,” Caulfield said.
Even if some of the adults in your life struggle with what they share, they’re still people with a wealth of knowledge, experience, and love to offer. Suresh, the 15-year-old in Toronto, taught his 79-year-old student, Eufemia Bianchi, many things about her Samsung phone, but it has also been a learning experience for him.
“I feel like one of the biggest things about this program is having a reason to talk to elders, because as teens you don’t have that many opportunities to talk to some of the smartest people in your community, and especially people who have all those life experiences,” he said. ●