Fake News? Teach Your Kids to Separate Fact from Fake Online

By on 11-01-2020

Expert tips for parents to teach children and teens media literacy - the right way to consume news.

Today, news is everywhere - from traditional sources like the New York Times, CNN and the BBC to newer feeds like Twitter, Facebook and Whatsapp.  But with the surge in access to news has come a surge in misinformation: fake news, which often travels faster and further than the truth.  

On February 25th 2020, a month before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of The World Health Organisation said “we’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic. Fake news spreads faster and more easily than this virus, and is just as dangerous.”  

While the challenge of misinformation is not new, it has been a growing cause for concern, exacerbated by the rise of technology. In recent years organisations like The Center for Humane Technology, have cast a spotlight on the influence misinformation is having on our politics and society. But with lives now more directly at stake with Covid-19, misinformation about the pandemic has brought the topic of fake news into the spotlight. 

Today, in the U.K, 45% of people get their news from social media. This is even higher for children. As such, social media platforms which have not been subject to the same content rules as TV, radio, print and other traditional news sources, are facing increasing scrutiny from regulators for their role in the dissemination of content.  They have started to take some action.  In March, Facebook, Reddit, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube issued a joint statement, in which they committed to helping people stay connected during the pandemic while also combating rising fraud and misinformation about the virus.  The result has been a series of blocks around content, most recently including Donald Trump’s false claims about Coronavirus.   

Fortunately, understanding when a scientific claim is true is relatively straight-forward. Take for example, debunking the myth that 5G masts cause COVID-19. This can be fact checked by independent scientists and quickly shown to be untrue.  But news and information can often stray from fact towards opinion. And in a world where we are looking to protect free speech, censorship of unfounded opinions can be a challenge. 

This leads to important questions: What is fake news exactly? What is the difference between fake news and opinion? The debate continues with respect to the responsibility that content distribution platforms have when it comes to curating the content that their users share. No matter where you draw the line, we are all consuming a daily diet of both fact and fiction

And, it’s everyone’s responsibility to spot fake news - a difficult job that is even more challenging for kids. As Covid continues to spread, and with the U.S. presidential elections right around the corner, now, more than ever, is a crucial time to teach your children digital literacy - the right way to consume news. Here are my tips on how to help your child or teen spot fake news. 

Fake news tips for parents

  1. Make sure your child is aware that fake news exists. It sounds so basic, but many children might not even realize that what they read might not be true. Children tend to be more trusting and naive than adults, so step one is letting them know that there are people who lie online. 
  2. Teach your child to ask challenging questions. Encourage your children not to accept content at face value.  Teach them to understand why, how and what has been shared with them, and to be critical observers of the content they consume.  Encourage questions such as:

    ·How did you find the content?
    ·How was it shared with you?
    ·Do you trust who shared it?
    ·Who created or wrote the content?
    ·Who might benefit or be harmed by it?
    ·Why did they make it?
    ·Is someone getting paid for this content?  
    ·What is the news not saying?
    ·Is part of the story being omitted?
    ·Do you trust what you are reading to be true?

  3. Have your child check the source. 
  4. Look up the URL or site name.
    · Do you recognise or trust it? Is the content high quality?
    · Are their spelling or grammatical mistakes?
    · Is the language unnecessarily sensationalist?
    · Can you find the same story on other more trusted sources like your national public news site? Is the site overloaded with advertising or other ‘clickbait’?
    · Does the associated content look reliable? 
    · See Professor Melissa Zimdars of Merrimack College for more tips.
  5. Block apps and websites that are generators of fake news. Parental control apps like Qustodio can help you set up blocking across devices.
  6. Make sure your child checks multiple sources. See what other news sources have to say about the same topic. Be sure to include news sources from other countries or political points of view.
  7. Help your child create the lifelong habit of ‘think before you share’. Remember, we are not just consumers, but also contributors to the content environment.  If you have any doubt that the content may be false, misleading or harmful in any way, don’t share it.  Or if you have to share it, do so with clear messaging around your concerns or doubts of the content. Encourage your friends and family to think critically about the content that they share - and feel free to hold others accountable for sharing misleading content.
  8. Trust your instinct. If something feels off, it probably is
  9. Learn more about fake news, together.
    · Watch The Social Dilemma.  Use it as an opportunity to discuss as a family the influence technology and the spread of content has on our decision making and society. 
    · Explore the extensive resources on fake news from both Common Sense Media and Ofcom.
    · Consider using a news app like Ground News, which will highlight the bias in the content you are reading and present an alternative with a different perspective.  
Georgie Powell

Georgie is Founder of Sentient Digital, a Responsible Technology & Digital Wellbeing Consultancy, working with organisations to build strategies and products which have a positive impact on their teams and the world.  She has worked with start-ups building Digital Wellbeing products, and is our UK ambassador.

Following a career in strategy consulting and then at Google,  she was a pioneer in digital wellbeing, co-founding one of the early screentime apps, SPACE.  Georgie now works with researchers around the world to better understand the relationship between technology and humans.  She is a recognised expert & and speaker on Digital Wellbeing, committed to helping millions of people consciously connect with technology. 

Qustodio’s Smart Parenting Tips newsletter is designed to help you stay informed as a parent and raise your children in the digital age with a bit more confidence. No scaremongering. Nothing trendy. Just the best advice from real experts.

Get monthly expert advice by signing up to our Smart Parenting Tips newsletter