The skills kids need to avoid getting fooled by fake news
Welcome to Small Humans, an ongoing series at Mashable that looks at how to take care of – and deal with – the kids in your life. Because Dr. Spock is nice and all, but it’s 2018 and we have the entire internet to contend with.
One day your kids are learning to walk and the next they're on their own sharing Russian propaganda on YouTube and Facebook.
You might think your great-uncle using an old desktop to "surf the internets" is the person at risk of accidentally spreading "fake news" on social networks, but kids these days aren't always faring so much better.
A large-scale study by the Stanford Graduate School of Education found that young people at every stage from middle school to college were consistently unable to differentiate news from advertising, or false information from the truth, a state of affairs the researchers described as “bleak.”
Compounding the problem is the way young people use the internet. Much of the news they do consume comes through intermediaries, chief among them YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, according to research from Common Sense Media. These networks often muddy the source of information or make all outlets look similar, robbing the audience of visual cues to help them differentiate reliable and less-reliable sources. It’s worth remembering that adults have trouble identifying fake news in this environment as well.
The good news is, parents and caregivers are ideally placed to help. The same Common Sense Media study found that while children aged 10 to 18 were typically skeptical of mainstream media, 66% felt they could trust information from their families.
So how can you teach kids to spot fake news, rather than be fooled by it?
The ABCs of media literacy
Common Sense Media’s vice president and editor-in-chief, Jill Murphy, says it starts with basic media literacy, which can be taught from as young as five—for example, telling your child why a show isn’t appropriate for them instead of just shutting it off. Toward the end of elementary school, they can grasp the fact that journalism is a job, which you might illustrate by showing them news stories on the same topic published by different outlets. “It may go against your values to look at the other side of an issue,” says Murphy. “But it's a way for them to absorb the concept that people write to convey a specific message. Learning to question those messages is an important skill.”
However, you don’t want to make them too critical, says Peter Adams, senior vice president of education at non-profit The News Literacy Project. “One mistake a lot of people make is to give the impression that all information is created with an ulterior motive. We don't want kids to be naïve, but we don't want them to be cynical, either.”
He thinks it’s helpful to be clear about the meaning of “fake news,” especially since the term has become politicized, used to mean anything from propaganda to a view you disagree with. “Fake news is a specific kind of misinformation that is entirely fictional but is designed to look like news, usually with an institutional-sounding name and an institutional-looking masthead.” He wouldn’t include manipulated images or conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones in this definition but sees them as part of a culture of misinformation, which he describes as “an enormous problem.”
His organization teaches adolescents to ask a series of questions when they look at a news story, especially one that incites an emotional reaction, as fake news is designed to do. If they haven’t heard of the publication before, they should search to see if any recognizable news outlets have covered the story. “Then they can ask more nuanced questions, like: Is this fair? Does it give me everything I need to know? Could it be more objective? The goal is for those steps to become habitual so they have an internal sense of red flags.”
Psychologist David Anderson, PhD is the director of programs at the Child Mind Institute in New York. He says parents who want to talk to their children about fake news should tackle it the same way as any other potentially sensitive subject. “Think about a couple of talking points beforehand and approach the conversation calmly. Then we recommend opening it up and asking what kind of stories they’ve seen where they’ve wondered whether they were real.” He says the best way to know what media your child is consuming is to watch videos or look at social media with them and let them tell you what they like, without judgment.
Use teenage angst for good
Adams says that teenagers are especially vulnerable to misinformation. They want to develop their own tastes, tend to distrust authority, and YouTube’s algorithms mean that they can easily be exposed to extremist views, whether they seek them out or not. If they believe any of the conspiracy theories they come across, though, he says they can usually be guided to see the truth. “Ask probing questions, like: How is this sourced? How is there no proof that this exists beyond these types of videos? They're connecting these two dots, are they really related?” Just don’t lecture them, advises Anderson. “We tend to listen to those who share our views and discount those who don’t.”
The effect of misinformation on children is hard to measure, but Adams sees equipping them to deal with it as a moral imperative. “Information is the basis of students' civic literacy, civic engagement, and civic empowerment, so to not give them the tools they need to navigate the 21st-century information landscape and make smart decisions is fundamentally disempowering.”
Of course, adults aren’t immune, and you might need to brush up on your own media literacy alongside your kids. But the key to these conversations is a strong parent-child relationship, says Anderson. “It’s about whether or not kids feel like you have their best interests at heart and can help them think about something without forcing them into a particular perspective.” Peter Adams agrees. His top tip for talking to children about fake news? “Bring it to them. Don't wait for them to bring it to you.”