Teaching Your Kids to Avoid Internet Research Pitfalls

By the time we're adults, we've picked up on that old adage that you can't always believe everything you read. Many kids just aren't there yet, though. Young readers may consider the Internet a safe zone they can trust.

If you take the time to help your kids do academic research on the Internet, you can introduce ideas about how to find trustworthy sources. Your kids are going to need your guidance when it comes to discerning what’s a trustworthy Internet source and what’s unreliable. Doing research together, and guiding your kids through the process, allows you to talk openly about whether or not information can be trusted. You want to show them how to think critically. That may seem sophisticated for young children, but teaching your kids research skills early on actually puts critical thinking in concrete terms.

Here are some key steps to get you started.

1. Explain how important it is to use sources that are trustworthy.

Start by explaining the concept of an expert. Ask your child whom she may know who is an expert: "Was the police officer who visited the school to talk about safety an expert? How about the guy at the museum who told us about dinosaurs? How do you know?"

Have her think about her teachers, her doctors, and her librarians. Explain what makes each of these mentors an authority on a certain topic. Ask how she knows that what they each say is true, and why she think that's important.

Explain that experts usually have experience or specialized education, and that finding resources written by these sorts of people means you can trust the information they share. You could also ask your child what it would be like if she had to write about something she didn’t know about, like what it’s like to live on the moon, or what it’s like to go to college. Then, have her compare this to writing about something she has a lot of experience in, like making her favorite snack or celebrating her favorite family tradition. Which would be easier to write? Which would people find more useful?

2. Visit websites that are trustworthy.

The American Library Association has a great website that lists kid-friendly resources. Or you can try kidsclick, a site designed by librarians that lists resources by category. You can also try sweetsearch, a search engine for students with resources that are vetted by experts.

Come up with a couple of questions that you'd both like answers to, such as “How were people mummified in Ancient Egypt?” or “How was electricity discovered?”

You and your child may feel like Alice down the rabbit hole as you browse through this collection of reputable sources. You can show your child that research is not only enlightening, but fun too.

As you browse, you can you point out some of the characteristics that make each resource trustworthy. For example, explain that a source with an .edu or .gov on its web address indicates that it is associated with a reputable institution.

3. Visit websites that shouldn't be used for research.

You're also going to need to give your child an idea of sources that aren't reputable or consistently reliable. Be sure to mention Wikipedia, since that will be the one she is confronted with most often. You can explain that the articles on Wikipedia are often written by people who are assembling or interpreting research done by others, so writers may not have a first-hand expertise or a specialized education.

While you’re on the site, you can show your child the often extensive list of links in the bibliography. Explain that these are worth checking out because they can lead her to more credible sources, and they also show where the information came from.

Next, visit a random blog. Ask your child to find out who the blog is written by. How can she check out that person's credentials? Afterward, visit an author bio on a reputable search. Compare both people’s experiences and bodies of work.

Cultivating these skills teaches kids how to be discerning, and how to vet sources actively on her own.

4. Give your child a few questions she can ask to know if a source is reputable.

  • Who is the author? Is she an expert? How can you tell?
  • Does the author give you facts, or is she stating her opinion?
  • Is the resource affiliated with a reputable organization (like a school, association, or library)?
  • Does the article have a bibliography that you can link to for more information or use to check sources?

Assessing reliable Internet sources can be difficult for researchers of any age. For kids, it's especially confusing, but these questions can provide a concrete starting point.

5. Finally, do some practice research with your child so she understands how the process works.

Come up with a general research topic such as "the environment." Help your child narrow the subject down to something she is curious about: "How is garbage affecting the world's oceans?" If you use a search engine like sweetsearch, the first articles you'll see will be from vetted science sites and reputable newspapers.

Ask your child: "Why is a source from a scientist a good choice?" Ask her whom she would not want to use as a source. Look at a few different sources to help your child practice evaluating each.

If you guide her through the process early on, you'll equip her with research skills she will use throughout her life.