Someone encountering the Internet for the first time might be forgiven for assuming it was created specifically for teenagers. Indeed, the Internet could reasonably be said to have been aging backwards since its birth – the domain first of scientists and the military, then of university students in the 1990s and now children and teenagers. The same is true of many popular online environments: Facebook, once restricted to university students, is now just as popular with teenagers (indeed, recent research has shown that one in five 8 to 12 year-olds in the UK has a Facebook account, though the Terms of Service theoretically require you to be 13 or older). Whether it's social networking, Wikipedia or iTunes, the Internet is tailor-made for teens: an intensely social environment that nevertheless feels intimate, providing constant stimulation and instant results. Unfortunately, for the most part teens receive little instruction in using the Internet, and most of what is taught is specific technical skills rather than how to critically engage with online media and use the Internet wisely and ethically. One obstacle to teaching digital literacy skills is the assumption that teenagers already know them, and there is no question that they are tremendously fluent in their use of online tools and environments – but fluency is not literacy, any more than a tenth-grader fluent in English knows how to write a competent paragraph without being taught.
If anyone still doubts that youth need to learn how to evaluate online information, those doubts should have been dispelled by a recent hoax perpetrated by the group called the Yes Men. This group, which has a history of staging fake press conferences, decided to draw attention to Canada's position at the Copenhagen conference on climate change by creating a number of fake Web sites purporting to be, among others, the Copenhagen summit site, the Wall Street Journal, and Environment Canada's site. While it didn't take long for Environment Canada to make a statement exposing the hoax, by that time many journalists had reported the story as fact and the story had been widely distributed by wire services.