Fact or Fake? How to Help Kids & Adults Spot Misinformation Online by Children and Screens Institute of Digital Media and Child Development
With the 24-hour news cycle bombarding young people constantly, and a flood of sharable and easily manipulated information available at their fingertips, kids (and their parents) face an increasingly daunting task of identifying, evaluating and discerning fact from fiction in their everyday lives. It can be hard to know who or what to trust, which is why Children and Screens has brought together the leading educators, researchers and experts to provide these useful tips for helping kids and parents spot misinformation online.
1. Question Everything
“Parenting children to become critical thinkers and conscious consumers of media involves welcoming the millions of questions that may come your way,” says Jimmeka Anderson, Founder and Executive Director of I Am not the Media, Inc. “The ‘because I said so’ responses that we may have heard from our parents do not equip today’s children with the skills they need to challenge misinformation online. Empower your child to question everything!” By embracing your child’s “why?” you will inspire them to seek answers and truth that exists between the physical and online world around them.
Author and media literacy educator Diana Graber loves to teach her students the C.R.A.P. Detection Test that she learned about in NetSmart: How to Thrive Online by Howard Rheingold. “It’s a simple – and unforgettable – acronym that helps young people (and any of us, for that matter) figure out if online information is, well, crap,” she says. “Here’s how it works. When you encounter questionable information online, ask yourself four questions: Is it Current? Is it Reliable? Who is the Author? Does it have a Purpose/Point of view? If your answer to any of these is “no,” then it’s probably not quality information.”
Howard Schneider, the Executive Director of the Center For News Literacy at the Stony Brook University School of Journalism, promotes a “lateral reading” strategy for students in middle school and above. “Lateral reading means that, when deciding whether a news story or social media post is trustworthy, it may not be enough just to interrogate the text itself,” he explains. “Certainly, students should always ask two key questions before sharing anything: ‘Who is the source of the information?’ and ‘What is the evidence that supports it?’ But increasingly, they'll need to ask a third question: What do other sources say?” Students will need to confirm the facts or source elsewhere, which means learning to use lateral reading as a check against bogus information, peer pressure, and the impulse to value speed over reflection.
“Belief starts with trust,” says Dr. Don Shifrin, spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics. “Find trusted sources that will allow you to verify if what you’re reading is true or false.” Dr. Shifrin suggests a series of useful questions parents can share with their kids in order to help them evaluate the information they find online. “Can you identify and trust who made it? Can you identify what, and why, they want you to believe it, and what action they want you to take after you receive their intended message? Do the authors believe the message they’re sending, or do they just want you to believe it?”
2. Face the Facts
The internet is filled with problematic content, and it can be difficult to know what to trust. “Our team’s research shows that when professional fact checkers encounter an unfamiliar website, they almost immediately leave it, open new tabs in their browser, and turn to the broader web for information about the original site,” says Stanford History Education Group director Dr. Joel Breakstone. “This strategy, which we call lateral reading, allows fact checkers to quickly figure out who is behind a site.” For more information on the technique, check out the Civic Online Reasoning website, which offers free curriculum about lateral reading and other tools that fact checkers use.
Sinan Aral, author of The Hype Machine: How Social Media Disrupts Our Elections, Our Economy and Our Health and How We Must Adapt, suggests that before kids share something online, Google it to check whether it's true or false. “So much falsity is easily debunked with a single click,” he explains. “Be part of the solution, not the problem. Set your friends straight and become known as a truth bearer in your social circle.”
3. Think Before You Click
Our emotions can spur us to share and respond to social media posts too quickly, sharing, "liking," and retweeting before we’ve even fully processed what we’re reading. “Try to train yourself to slow down and model smart moves for your kids,” says Lisa Guernsey, director of Teaching, Learning and Tech at New America. “You may want to even verbalize your personal criteria before you share something: ‘Do I know who or what is behind this post? Have I read what is behind this link? Do I really need to share this?’ When you have moments of social media scrolling with your kids, prompt them to do the same.”
If a headline seems too extreme or sensational, Middle Tennessee State University Media Studies professor Katherine A. Foss warns that it’s likely just click-bait leading to fake news. “Look at the source of every link or article,” she says. “Social media posts, memes and blogs rank low on the source credibility hierarchy, while established mainstream news outlets are toward the top.” Professor Foss recommends only sharing articles online if you’ve vetted the information and source, and suggests helping children and teens learn to do the same.
4. Encourage Healthy Skepticism
Parents should encourage kids to act as healthy skeptics of all information. “Begin by creating a safe space in your home where youth can discuss and question ideas, texts, society, truth and power,” says College of Charleston Literacy Education professor W. Ian O’Byrne. “Extend this by having youth work with ill-formed, illogical problems that don’t include all the information they need. Finally, encourage youth to engage in the learning experience as you interact with information online and offline.” By understanding, developing, and scaffolding healthy skepticism, parents can help children prepare to evaluate and possibly solve the kinds of problems they’ll see in their lives going forward.
Parents can use everyday digital content (games or social media) to address meaning and influence on the internet. “It’s important to remember that we process both content and implicit influence from platforms we utilize,” says Dr. Angie Corbo, Chair of Communication Studies at Widener University. “A TikTok video, the musical Hamilton and a documentary on the Founding Fathers, for instance, will each inform and influence an audience differently.” To help kids consider influence, intentionality, and implicit messages, parents can invite their children to summarize the content of a digital source or ask them, “What was the artist’s or author’s goal in creating the material?”
5. All the Rage
“Outrage is a commodity that’s exploited by corporate entities, governments and scammers,” says clinical and forensic psychiatrist Dr. Praveen Kambam, “and an intense emotional reaction is a cue to check if a post is not accurate or balanced.” Instead of focusing mostly on the content of the post, Dr. Kambam suggests getting back to its original sources and thinking about who posted it, who the intended audience is, and what the intended result is. Cross-check with other sources and utilize fact-checking sites, if necessary, and consider your motivation before sharing. Do you want others to do something with the information, or did it just make you angry?
“Misinformation manipulates our emotions into believing something is true,” says The News Literacy Project’s John Silva. “If you find yourself experiencing a strong emotional reaction, pause what you’re doing, open a browser tab and search for key details to verify if what you are seeing is accurate.” It turns out that anger, sadness and even humor can make us accept things as true without evaluating them closely enough, especially if it lines up with something we already believe.
Differentiating misinformation from trustworthy information is a vital skill for children to develop. “Step one is teaching children that misinformation and fake content are always designed to elicit extreme emotional reactions,” says TechClever Education founder Dr. Joanne Orland. “Encourage children to question articles, headlines, images and other content they view online that makes them feel very angry, surprised, disgusted and/or shocked. Fake content creators know that this is how they get us to believe what they post online, and to like it, share it, and comment.”
6. Nip It in the Bud
As important as it is for parents to teach their children digital media literacy, University of Arizona Professor Matthew Lapierre, argues that the most meaningful fixes regarding misinformation must come at the institutional level. “We cannot teach individuals to spot misinformation and expect things to be fixed when powerful media companies like Facebook and YouTube make it possible to share flawed information with ease,” he explains. “At the same time these companies are pushing untrustworthy information to increase their user engagement, reputable news organizations are presenting misinformation as legitimate in order to create more entertaining content, and political leaders are making public policy based on bad information.” For long-term solutions, change must come from the top.
7. Reliable Sources
Help children understand that just because a source is credible on one topic doesn’t mean they’re credible on every topic. Faith Rogow of Insighters Educational Consulting provides a useful analogy: “Your veterinarian knows how to take care of your dog, but that doesn’t mean they know how to help you become a better cook! When you share the criteria you use to judge source credibility and the types of evidence you rely on with your kids, it helps reinforce the habit of treating individual claims as worthy of a closer look, especially if those claims influence something you’re going to do (like spend money, vote or tell friends).”
8. Confirmation Bias on Steroids
We tend to search for information based on “confirmation bias” – clicking on and sharing things that support what we already believe and rejecting whatever challenges it. The internet is also designed to show us what it thinks we want to see, which means that when we look for information online, we’re subjected to what UCLA Professor Joe Pierre calls a kind of “confirmation bias on steroids.” “Maintaining a skeptical attitude makes us better consumers of online information,” says Pierre, “but not if we’re only skeptical about things we don’t like or disagree with.” Healthy skepticism isn’t the same as denialism – don’t reject information or label it “fake news” just because it goes against what you believe.
With so much of our lives taking place online right now due to the COVID-19 pandemic, digital media literacy is more essential than ever. The fear, frustration and anxiety many of us feel can cloud our judgment and induce us to believe or share misinformation without thinking critically about the source or underlying assumptions. As these tips demonstrate, taking a moment to process our emotions and react to “news” stories and social media posts with a measured and rational approach will not only help stem the flow of misinformation, but also help adults and children become more informed students, parents and citizens.
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