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Truth, Lies, and the Internet

Truth, Lies and the Internet, a just-published report from the British think-tank Demos, shares that, despite their feelings of efficacy, young people are not careful, discerning users of the Internet.

Researchers Jamie Bartlett and Carl Miller reviewed current literature and conducted an online survey of 509 primary and secondary school teachers in England and Wales regarding their assessment of students’ digital fluency.  The authors define digital fluency as: the ability to find and critically evaluate online information.

Among the finders from the Executive Summary:

Too many digital natives do not apply checks on the information they access: around one in four 12-15 year- olds make no checks at all when visiting a new website, and less than one in ten ask who made the site and why.

Aesthetics over quality: decisions about information quality is based on site design, rather than more accurate checks . . .

Lack of teaching: only one-third of 9-19 year-olds have been taught how to judge the reliability of online information . . .

The researchers note that young people who do not apply fact checks, and who are unable to recognize bias and propaganda, will not seek a variety of sources and are likely vulnerable to the pitfalls and rabbit holes of ignorance, falsehoods, cons and scams and that (chillingly) the potential danger of these deficiencies is that young people are more likely to be seduced by extremist and violent ideas.

The report calls for an emphasis on digital fluency at the heart of learning, for the involvement of the Department of Education, as well as third sector representatives like Google and Yahoo!  And it suggests that parents take a more active role in guiding young people’s critical thinking and their online consumption.

The study is a compelling argument for the critical importance of developing what we’ve long called information literacy skills and for ensuring that our teens practice these life skills.

Censorship of the internet is neither necessary nor desirable; the task instead is to ensure that young people can make careful, skeptical and savvy judgments about the internet content they encounter. This would allow them to better identify outright lies, scams, hoaxes, selective half-truths, and mistakes, and better navigate the murkier waters of argument and opinion.

The report makes a strong case for a global educational focus on information fluency (or media fluency or digital fluency).

Sadly, librarians are not mentioned in the study at all.  Judging by the breakdown of participant specialties, librarians were not included in the sample of educators. The lit review largely overlooked the existing body of research on information literacy.

I wonder if this powerful call to action in the UK will lead to serious consideration of the role teacher librarians might play in addressing the identified learner deficiencies.

Joyce Valenza About Joyce Valenza

Joyce is an Assistant Professor of Teaching at Rutgers University School of Information and Communication, a technology writer, speaker, blogger and learner. Follow her on Twitter: @joycevalenza


  1. Thanks for this post Joyce. You do a good job of calling attention to the challenges faced by young people in developing information literacy, as well as pointing out the lack of awareness of the school librarian’s role.

    As a US-born librarian who qualified and worked in the United Kingdom, I discovered very similar results when informally evaluating pupils’ information literacy abilities. Many pupils seemed to believe that research meant typing assignment questions word for word into a search engine. Like the Demos researchers, I found that pupils focused more on website design rather than content, and they were not in the habit of determining the reliability of information on the web, even though they were certainly capable of doing so once prompted.

    With so many teachers relying on the internet for research projects and with so many students still struggling to research effectively, it would seem a given that school librarians would become more involved in integrating information literacy into the curriculum, but unfortunately school library provision in the United Kingdom is patchy.

    Primary schools in the UK rarely have qualified librarians; they are more likely to rely on area wide school library service provision, but this has been under threat due to the recession. Secondary schools are more likely to employ librarians, but there is no statutory requirement to do so, so qualified librarians are more likely to be found in affluent areas or in private schools. Up here in Scotland, it is strongly recommended that schools with 300+ students employ qualified librarians, but again this has been under threat, and the result is that some schools are sharing librarians, librarians are being replaced by clerical assistants, and school and public libraries are combining to create “network librarian” positions.

    I know this is turning into a bit of an essay, but I think this may be why the researchers did not mention librarians in their study. Although there are some amazing and innovative librarians here in the UK, many people still do not view librarians as educators. As I have written recently, school librarians are often seen as support staff, which is perhaps why they were not given attention in this report, despite the fact that many are directly involved in the activities outlined by Demos.

  2. Thank you, Erin, for providing us with an international perspective. I am grateful for your thoughtful explanation and sad to have my suspicions confirmed.

    But I wonder if how our amazing and innovative colleagues in the UK, few that they may be, are responding.

  3. Update: The librarians have spoken! Several librarians have made comments on the Demos researchers’ blog questioning the omission of school librarians from the original study. Carl Miller and Jamie Bartlett have graciously responded and are asking librarians to share their experiences of helping students develop digital fluency/IL.

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