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.
Monash Education educational and developmental psychologist and researcher Dr Nerelie Freeman outlines some key ideas.
More children are spending time online, and the age at which children start using the internet is far younger. Yet only 2 percent of children aged up to 15 years have the critical thinking required to consistently distinguish fact from fiction online.
What is online disinformation?
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 about the efficacy of vaccinations.
What do children do with fake news and disinformation?
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.
Another study reported that young people 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 children are exposed to disinformation.
Some young people have reported that they share disinformation with their peers without any thought for the consequences — motivated by a sense of fun or the attention they receive from others.
Five tips for helping kids think critically about online content
Helping children understand fake news can help stop the impact of disinformation. Here are some ways to do that in the classroom:
- Make students aware of different types of disinformation
Use simple, instructive graphics (like the one below) to define different types of disinformation. Ask your students to rate them from least to most harmful.
This can initiate a conversation with students on the different levels of intent in deceptive online content. You can 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?
- Link disinformation with familiar concepts
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.
- Know your platforms
Some teachers have limited knowledge or engagement with online platforms, especially Tik Tok or Instagram. 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.
- Encourage critical thinking in your students
Spend time searching online for topics that interest students. 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?
- Maintain students’ awareness of disinformation
Hold an event at your school on disinformation (For example, during your school’s annual Wellness Week or on Global Wellness Day, June 11th). Write a brief article in the school newsletter so parents are aware that this is being discussed at school and encourage them to continue the conversation at home.
Livingstone, S. Winther, D. K. & Saeed, M. (2019). Global Kids Online comparative report.
National Literacy Trust. (2018). Fake news and critical literacy: The final report on the Commission of Fake News and the Teaching of Critical Literacy in Schools.
Syam, H. M. & Nurrahmi, F. (2020). “I don’t know if it is fake or real news”: How little Indonesian University students understand social media literacy. Malaysian Journal of Communication, 36(2), 92-105.
Wardle, C. (2017, February 17). Fake news. It’s complicated. First Draft News.