Media literacy is more than spotting fake news. How one librarian gives teens the tools to decide what to trust

New Brunswick, New Jersey (CNN) — Along with the smell of old books and the shelves of trendy novels at the South Brunswick High School library are guides for accurately deciphering the digital world.

Media literacy is the ability to decode media messages – including the systems in which they exist – assess their influence on thoughts, feelings and behaviors, and create media thoughtfully and conscientiously, according to 

an advocacy group that tracks and drives the subject’s implementation in K-12 schools across the United States.

With lots of kids now getting their news from social media – where 

 run rampant – 18 states have some form of K-12 media literacy education on the books, according to . Of those, four – Delaware, Texas, New Jersey and, starting this year,  – mandate media literacy, with lesson standards now being crafted state by state.

Online misinformation, of course, can direct kids not only to messages that aren’t true but also to dangers like cyberbullying, negative body image and a path into substance abuse, the group says. And so the potential impact of teaching them how to interpret what they see online could be nothing short of “life-changing,” said Olga Polites, New Jersey chapter leader for Media Literacy Now.

When cars were invented, for instance, auto safety wasn’t widely talked about, seatbelts weren’t a priority and learning how to drive was a whole new landscape, she said.

“(Cell) phones are like cars,” Polites told CNN. “But we haven’t really taught people how to use them ethically, efficiently and responsibly.”

To do that, a media literacy lesson might include analyzing which emotions the wording of a mass media headline evoke. Or parsing the photo that runs alongside the text of a news piece. Or using “lateral reading” – lining up stories on the same topic in browser tabs to compare credibility, intent and biases – as Manganello did a few weeks ago at South Brunswick High School.

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