Critical Thinking

Information online comes in many forms – news articles, video content, blogs, information pages and more. Before the internet, the challenge was finding what we needed. Now we are now faced with such a volume of content that the challenge has become sifting through it and working out what is accurate and useful.

Critical thinking includes various important skills that all online users, but especially young people, need to navigate the internet safely to find accurate and reliable information.

What is critical thinking?

Being a critical thinker doesn’t mean rejecting all information you find. Instead, it means pausing, thinking twice and not accepting the things we see and hear online immediately and at face value. Young people should think carefully about the information they are presented with, considering its source, comparing it with what they already know to be true, asking questions, forming judgements and checking with others if they are unclear. For many young people, these skills won’t be new to them – but they may need further development.

When is critical thinking important?

Critical thinking encompasses a whole range of skills which are important in allowing online users to assess the reliability of the information they come across. Click on the examples below to learn more about some of the types of inaccurate or unreliable information which can be found online, and that critical thinking can help to address.

  • Advertising Open or Close

    Appearing across almost all online platforms, from social media to games to web browsers, online advertising uses lots of different tactics to encourage clicks – including interactive games and puzzles, clickbait style headings, or tricky-to-spot sponsored content from social media celebrities and influencers. They all have the same purpose though - to encourage users to spend money.

  • Clickbait Open or Close

    This refers to eye-catching headlines or titles designed to get users' attention and clicks, clickbait generally under-delivers on a user’s expectations. Articles or videos may be about a completely different topic to what the title suggested. Wording like “You won’t believe…” may be followed by predictable or sparse content.

  • Conspiracy theories Open or Close

    Whilst not a new phenomenon, conspiracy theories have certainly found a bigger platform and susceptible audience online. Often spread unofficially through social media channels or online discussion forums, popular conspiracy theories implicate powerful people and organisations in secret plots supposedly behind real-world events.

  • Deep fakes Open or Close

    Most famous for their use to create fake celebrity pornography videos, deepfake techniques use increasingly advanced methods to superimpose existing photos and videos over a different photo or video. This can result in surprisingly convincing footage of people or actions that never actually happened.

  • Fake news Open or Close

    2017’s word of the year, “fake news” is a broad term which originally referred to false, often sensational information spread under the guise of news reporting. It’s increasingly accepted that ‘fake news’ is more of an umbrella term, and can refer to deliberate lies, partially untrue or biased stories, propaganda or even satire.

  • Photos Open or Close

    It’s no longer as simple as seeing is believing. Photo editing software is increasingly sophisticated and readily available. Whether looking at photos or videos on social media, or across other platforms, it’s important to consider the possibility that the image shown is not necessarily an accurate portrayal of reality.

  • Scams and phishing Open or Close

    Whether it’s a deliberately misleading sales listing, such as fake tickets, or an email trying to steal your login or bank details, scams and phishing attempts generally rely on online users submitting their details with the faith that they’ll get something in return. Sophisticated fraudsters and phishing attempts often rely on emails, webpages or messages which appear to be from trustworthy sources, making spotting fakes an important skill!

What are the risks?

Critical thinking is all about analysing the information you are seeing online and determining to what extent it can be trusted. The risk comes when users mistakenly put trust in information and sources online that are deceptive, ambiguous or false. The risks will vary depending on the extent of the trust and the extent of the deception.


A phishing email pretending to be from your bank which you then respond to with confidential login details is a high level of deception, given a high level of trust. There is a high risk of fraud or theft.

An edited image on social media which leads to you following or liking the account is a lower level of deception, but also given a lower level of trust. The risks are also therefore lower.

Of course, even with low level risks, the continued exposure or interaction with them over time can have cumulative impacts. For example if you’re constantly seeing heavily edited content on social media, this may have a more significant impact than seeing a single heavily edited post.

What should critical thinking look like for children of different ages?

Click on the options below to learn more about what critical thinking should look like for children of different ages.