Conspiracy theories and fake news – the disinformation kids read online, impacts children, as well as adults, and new research shows young people are more exposed and vulnerable than ever. Report by Dr Nerelie Freeman.
Globally, it is estimated that one child in three is an internet user, and it won’t surprise any parent to know that mobile phones are the most popular go-to device.
More children are spending more time online than ever and the age at which children start using the internet is far younger, and yet our kids are highly susceptible to the impact of fake news.
Only 2 per cent of children aged up to 15 years have the critical thinking required to consistently distinguish fact from fiction online.
Online disinformation refers to sharing false information on websites, social media and social networking sites, including Instagram and TikTok.
Disinformation is often used to promote a particular political or moral cause. It can include conspiracy theories, fake news and other content intended to cause harm.
In the time of COVID-19, children are particularly vulnerable to exposure to disinformation and have been targeted with fake news, especially about vaccinations.
What do children do with fake news and disinformation? And what can we do to help them identify it?
A UNICEF survey of 14,733 children aged 9–17 across ten countries found that up to 75% (three-quarters) of children were unable to judge whether the information they read online was true. This was especially true for the youngest age group in the survey, aged 9–11.
Children also say they find it harder to tell between real and fake news on social media compared to other mediums. This makes social media sites the most common platforms where kids are exposed to disinformation.
Some young people are known to share disinformation with their peers or friends without any thought for the consequences — motivated by a sense of fun or the attention they receive from others.
Helping children understand fake news can help stop the impact of disinformation. So what can we do to help kids think critically about online content?
First and foremost we need to make our children aware of different types of disinformation.
In the classroom, teachers can use simple graphics to define different types of disinformation and ask students to rate them from least to most harmful.
This initiates a conversation around the different levels of intent in deceptive online content. Teachers can also explore reasons with students about why this content is being created. For example, is it to make fun of others or to recruit other people to a cause?
Linking disinformation with familiar concepts also helps our kids to better identify what’s fake and what’s real, for example, one kind of disinformation is ‘imposter content’. Lots of primary and secondary school students are familiar with the popular online game Among Us: the aim being to identify the imposter. Using imagery of the imposter character from the game in conversations can help extend what children know about imposters in the game to imposter content online. Parents and teachers should also know the platforms kids use. Some teachers have limited knowledge or engagement with online platforms, especially Tik Tok or Instagram, likewise for parents. It’s hard to keep up with kids these days and especially the ever-changing platforms they use, but it’s important to be aware.
Increasing your own knowledge of these platforms will make you more confident to have these conversations with your students; esafety is one organisation offering professional learning for teachers and great resources for parents too.
One of the key ways to help kids identify fake news is to encourage their critical thinking. Spend time searching online for topics that interest children. Talk with them about the source of the information and who is publishing it. Does the author appear legitimate? How can we tell if an information source is real and reputable? Do they think that the information is fact or opinion? It’s also important to maintain children’s awareness of disinformation. Schools can hold an event on disinformation (For example, during your school’s annual Wellness Week or on Global Wellness Day, June 11th). This should be layered with communication to parents, via the school newsletter or classroom so parents are aware that this is being discussed at school and they can continue the conversation at home.
Studies tell us that fake news on social media spreads up to six times faster than true news, and fake news is 70% more likely to get retweeted than truth. Every day our children are exposed to an ocean of disinformation, so it’s vital that parents and teachers work together to help our kids wade through the waves.
Dr Nerelie Freeman is a Psychologist and researcher at the School of Educational Psychology and Counselling, Monash University.