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We Need to Teach Kids How to Be Skeptical of the Internet

According to a year-long study from Stanford researchers, the inability of young students to tell “fake news” from real news is alternately “dismaying,” “bleak,” and a “threat to democracy.”
Image: maxim ibragimov/Shutterstock

The internet is a beautiful escape, the world's most wide-reaching communication device, the biggest business ever conceived, and a leveler of who has the tools to create art. But it's also a perfectly-honed propaganda machine that bounces back our biases so often it's become a hazard to the future. According to a year-long study from Stanford researchers, the inability of young students to tell "fake news" from real news is alternately "dismaying," "bleak," and a "threat to democracy."


If the children are the future, the future looks bleak.

Stanford came to these conclusions after having more than 7,800 middle school, high school, and college-age students evaluate articles, tweets, and comments. The results were depressing. Eighty percent of middle schoolers couldn't tell "sponsored content" from articles, over 80 percent of high schoolers accepted the validity of photographs without attempting to verify their authenticity, and high schoolers couldn't tell fake from real news on Facebook. It's all the more disheartening because these are members of the first generation that are, in demographic terms, "digital natives."

It's worth pointing out the game is totally rigged against all of us.

"You have writers who are very skilled at their craft. Putting them up against 11-to-13-year-olds isn't fair."

"There's just so much information, it's harder and harder to accurately and effectively process it," said Yalda Uhls, a child psychology researcher and author of Media Moms and Digital Dads: A Fact not Fear Approach to Parenting in the Digital Age. Rather, our brains use heuristics, those "rules of thumb" we trot out when a decision is seemingly simple or must made quickly. But those shortcuts don't always lead to the best results. "That's why if you're on one end of the political spectrum and a headline confirms what you already believe, your brain takes the shortcut," said Uhls.


Not helping matters is that there aren't enough gatekeepers to vet, fact-check, or edit the news being delivered. "Anyone can create a website," said Yalda. "The genie is out of the bottle." And there's really no turning off news. With Facebook feed clutter and pop-up notifications, and your various friends and family boosting those signals, news consumption is near-osmotic, meaning (blissful?) ignorance is impossible. And in order to question something's legitimacy, first you have to think about it.

It's tough enough for adults to combat fake, incorrect, and partisan news, how are kids supposed to?

Image: US Department of Education

"You have [writers] very skilled at their craft. Putting them up against 11-to-13-year-olds isn't fair," said Jacob Deems, a teacher at the Academy of Global Citizenship, a public charter school in Chicago. "Students need to be taught [internet literacy] explicitly, but they also just need to grow up and mature."

So, how do we level the playing field in the meantime? And at what age should educators—both at home and school—offer lessons on how to use the internet? We'll take the second question first, as it's answered in the same way by every person I talk to: As soon as humanly possible.

"The internet is so pervasive in students' lives before they even come to us," said Deems. "They're not navigating social media, but they're grabbing the iPad as early as 2, 3, 4 years old."

Know all that parenting advice from years back that focused on when your child is ready for the internet? Throw that all away. They're "ready" as soon as they can physically manipulate devices, which means, as soon as they can move their fingers. If you don't prepare them for it, your children's friends will fill in the gaps.


How does internet literacy fit into the education curriculum? When I was growing up in the 90s, there was a stand-alone computer class where we'd learn how to program, use the qwerty keyboard and mouse, and create and print documents. Now, as part of Common Core standards, most schools are required to administer lessons covering the wide umbrella of "digital literacy," which includes how to surf the internet and work a computer, but also how to be a good "digital citizen." However, most teachers don't give these lessons the same focus as math and language standards.

"A lot of educators think [providing digital literacy] is not their job," said Merve Lapus, director of school partnerships at Common Sense Media, a non-profit organization that provides technology and media education for children. "They think it's IT's job, or the teacher's special assistant, or the librarian. If it's only used in technology class, the lessons will only stay within technology class."

"It's important for kids to recognize that every time they click on something, they're creating a trail that brings information to them."

The teachers that do try to introduce digital literacy into their classrooms supplement from places like Common Sense and Newsela, nonprofits that provide teaching guides, interactive games, and lesson plans. These include things like providing articles with quizzes to promote reading comprehension, alerting kids about security concerns when navigating the web, and breaking down the barrier between real and online life in an attempt to remove the arm's length separation that allows cyberbullying to persist.


These lessons that highlight how the online world affects the real one doesn't stop with cyberbullying. It also provides students the ability to view news through a much-needed critical lens.

If you're taught to consider the intentions of the writer or outlet, you sense their biases. (One method that Deems has found effective is pulling clips of articles from different sources and explicitly writing about the purpose of the author and their point of view.) A step above that is informing students about how information (whether that's news or ads) gets to the reader in the first place. "It's important for kids to recognize that every time they click on something, they're creating a trail that brings information to them," said Lapus.

Will this all be enough? There are reasons to be hopeful, whether it's the fact that Facebook and other social media outlets are beginning to see their role as deliverers of media, or that, historically speaking, humanity has been through cultural-upheaving media innovations (ahem, the printing press) and gotten to the other side better off than before. But perhaps the most promising sign is that the children of today are not repeating the sins of their parents in one particularly way.

"Kids don't care about Facebook," said Deems. "They're on YouTube, Instagram, SnapChat. Facebook is not their thing."

(This was backed by a brief survey I was able to take of Aaron Fischer's 7th and 8th grade class at the Academy of Global Citizenship. Of the 17 surveys I received from his students regarding what sites they use on the internet, only one mentioned Facebook; survey data from 2014 backs up teens leaving Facebook in droves. Mostly, kids seem to get their news from "news on TV" or Snapchat, the latter of which is already getting high marks in how it's delivering news.)

So, while the Stanford study wasn't heartening, maybe the kids, with lessons learned from both our monstrous malfeasance and through quality digital literacy instruction, will be alright. After all, we're the idiots who thought Marilyn Manson was Paul Pfeiffer. The next generation can't be as dumb as that.