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N.J. is about to make kids more media-savvy. Every state should follow suit.

Our individual and collective well-being depends on it.

Schools in New Jersey could be changing in ways that would have far-reaching benefits for students there, making kids healthier, more resilient, and better citizens. A little-noticed bipartisan bill, recently approved by the state legislature, would implement media literacy education in New Jersey’s K-12 public schools.

The bill should be signed into law by Gov. Phil Murphy — and, if we are wise, all 49 other states should follow suit.

Why is media literacy so important? All of us are struggling to make sense of today’s increasingly chaotic information environment. But our children are the most vulnerable.

Social media platforms, and the powerful algorithms that are central to their business model, create a firehose of content aimed directly at our children — flooding them with garbage aimed at ginning up their jealousy, insecurity, horror, outrage, and fear.

Social media companies reap massive profits from keeping all of us unhappy and glued to our phones — but young people, with their brains still developing, are the most defenseless against this onslaught.

Many American news organizations, fighting for survival in a changing information ecosystem, have filled their channels with information designed not only to inform, but to entertain, enrage, and keep people watching or scrolling or reading for as long as possible, too.

Civility has suffered. Mis- and disinformation have overwhelmed us. But our children are the true victims. Even before the pandemic, anxiety and depression were becoming more common among children and adolescents, increasing 27% and 24%, respectively, from 2016 to 2019, according to JAMA Pediatrics. By 2020, 5.6 million kids had been diagnosed with anxiety and 2.4 million had been diagnosed with depression. In recent years, more children ages 10 to 14 have died from suicide than from cancer or other diseases. It’s appalling.

New Jersey is taking the first steps toward building a healthier environment for our children. The details of the media literacy courses will be hashed out by a team of experts before being rolled out in schools, but a few central ideas will be key. The curriculum, called information literacy, will provide basic instruction about how to analyze and evaluate all forms of communication, and help students learn to distinguish between fact and opinion. These classes should help kids better distinguish a message’s purpose — and think carefully before deciding whether to trust and further amplify it.

With thoughtful implementation, the results are likely to be far-reaching. Education scholars have pointed out that reliable information is to civic health what clean water and proper sanitation are to public health. The streams of bad information our children get online affect their perceptions of the world.

Yes, our kids know how to create videos that sync a pop tune to their amateur dance moves, but that doesn’t mean they understand the effect that scrolling through TikTok has on their emotions, their feelings about themselves and others, and their feelings about their place in their community. In fact, recent studies suggest that the mishmash of information gleaned from social media may be making it harder, not easier, for kids to understand how to be a thoughtful human, a good friend, a good neighbor, and a solid citizen.

» READ MORE: TikTok got me through the pandemic. Then its algorithm turned on me.

There is other promising legislation on the horizon, too. The Kids Online Safety Act, which has growing bipartisan support in the Senate, would force social media companies to provide parental controls and share usage data with researchers. California’s landmark Age-Appropriate Design Code Act, signed into law in September, will require online platforms likely to be used by children to default to the safest settings, limit data collection, and establish new protocols for notifying the state how children’s data might be used.

To be sure, media literacy isn’t going to be a one-semester course like driver’s ed. New Jersey’s bill would require the state’s Board of Education to establish specific curriculum standards for each grade so that students can develop information literacy comprehension appropriate for each stage through their progression as learners. An ongoing effort is key.

By properly equipping our children with skills to differentiate between professionally gathered news, advertisements, scientific articles, and political propaganda, plus developing some savvy at evaluating information quality, the NJ bill gives communities a chance to fight back — helping parents and educators work together to create healthier norms for our children and ourselves.

Our individual and collective well-being depends on it.

Julie Scelfo is a longtime journalist, former New York Times staff writer, and executive director of Get Media Savvy, a nonprofit initiative devoted to helping humans navigate the 21st-century media environment — and retain our humanity.

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