It’s impossible to shield your kids from obvious lies and untruths: Trump won the 2020 election; climate change is a hoax; COVID vaccines contain microchips so the government can track people. With kids spending more time online at younger and younger ages, they’re being exposed to more of this type of misinformation and disinformation than ever before. With their young, naïve brains — the brain isn’t fully developed until age 25 — kids have an even harder time than adults judging whether a story is fake news. And given that the human brain is biased towards remembering sensationalized news and believing the people around us, adults already have a hard enough time identifying misinformation.
In the age of fake news, misinformation manipulates children’s emotions and behaviors and increases their risk of spreading conspiracy theories. It puts their health at risk. And it isn’t going away anytime soon.
Where Are Kids Running Into Misinformation?
From the moment children learn to read or start watching TV, they’re in jeopardy of seeing false or misleading information. But kids are also highly reliant on what the adults in their life tell them, says Lynette Owens, founder and global director of Trend Micro’s Internet Safety for Kids and Families program. Adults consume their own media, and if someone parrots misinformation around a kid, it’s natural for them to believe an adult who loves and cares for them.
Exposure to misinformation is highest when children spend a lot of their time on the Internet, Owens says. Falling for misinformation can start young. “We know that kids as young as 8 years old are consuming a lot of videos on YouTube,” she says. “Depending on how well they’re being supervised, they could be exposed to misinformation even before they ever get their first social media account.”
About 90% of teens use social media, and more than half check their social media daily. For 7- to 9-year-olds, 32% are on social media. And misinformation spreads quickly on these sites. A 2018 study found that fake news, especially stories that provoked reactions of disgust and surprise, were 70% more likely to be retweeted on Twitter than real news. It took six times longer for true stories to reach people compared to fake news.
Popular video-sharing social media platforms such as YouTube and TikTok have become sources of quick health news. However, research shows the quality of health information posted on TikTok is not completely reliable and may come from someone who is unqualified to give advice or an organization looking to profit from their content. And it’s not just health misinformation blowing up on these platforms. A 2021 study found that 8 of 100 TikTok videos with the hashtag #climatechange came from a credible source. Additionally, videos with climate change misinformation made up 13 million views (6.45%) associated with the hashtag.
There are qualified health experts who work with teens to send accurate information through social media, Diamond says. But for the most part, she’s seen influencers who already have an established audience use their platform to spread their views and opinions, which may or may not be scientifically backed.
“A lot of kids are getting the same info that ‘I don’t need the vaccine,’ and ‘COVID isn’t bad for me.’ It becomes a game of telephone,” says Rebekah Diamond, M.D., an assistant professor of pediatrics at Columbia University. “Information gets filtered, and younger people are having these messages tailored to them.”
“Unfortunately, [misinformation and disinformation] have become very pervasive,” Owens adds. “And it has become more acute over the course of the pandemic because we’re spending so much time online than we were before.”
How Misinformation and Fake News Hurt Kids
From the politicization of vaccines to COVID fake news, misinformation has directly harmed kids’ health. Misinformation is leading children to not want to get vaccinated, especially if their parents were already originally reluctant to get the vaccine, Diamond says. During the Omicron surge in the winter of 2022, most children she saw at the hospital were not vaccinated, including those who were 5 and up and eligible for vaccination.
Fake news has been around for a while now, but the amount of it escalated during the COVID-19 pandemic. One review on children’s social media use noted that health misinformation on COVID intensified their pandemic anxiety, fear of missing out on life, and impacted their overall mental well-being.
Misleading stories and posts around the efficacy and safety of the COVID vaccine in kids may have also created public distrust in institutions such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and reputable news organizations, both for adults and kids. More than 60% of children have become distrusting of the media. “My kids have been part of classroom conversations where kids are debating which news sources are most credible,” Owens says. Children may feel alienated for their views or may be picked on for following unpopular advice such as continuing to wear masks even when school mask mandates have been lifted.
Why Are Children Falling for Misinformation?
With so many adults falling for fake news, it’s no wonder that kids do too. But children are particularly susceptible to misinformation.
The adolescent brain is a work in progress. The prefrontal cortex, which is involved in decision-making and logical reasoning, is underdeveloped in kids and teenagers. This increases impulsivity. With the prefrontal cortex underdeveloped, the adolescent brain relies on the emotional part of the brain to make decisions. And it’s no surprise that much of the news shared on social media features strong, emotional headlines.
“Kids are a little more susceptible and vulnerable to misinformation because of how their brains are developed and what things affect them,” Diamond says. To put it bluntly, they have a poor ability to distinguish between fact and fiction.
In one study, 11- and 12-year-olds were asked to visit a hoax website about an endangered octopus going extinct under the pretense that they would learn to understand an online text. They were encouraged to explore the site and search the web for any other information they wanted. Afterwards, the children answered questions about whether they would want to sign a petition to save the octopus featured on the site. Of the 27 kids in the class, only two said “no” and were able to explain that the website was fake and that the endangered octopus was not real.
The same study also found that adolescents aren’t too concerned about where they get their news. The researchers explain it may have to do with the emotions involved in saving an animal from going extinct.
How Parents Can Protect Their Kids From Misinformation
The simple solution to stopping misinformation is finding the source and getting rid of it. But that’s easier said than done. It’s not possible to stop all fake news from reaching your kid online, short of banning them from the Internet. But you can take steps to limit the misinformation that reaches your child on social media.
Owens advises using privacy settings to limit the amount of personal information that can be accessed about your child. One way to do this is by blocking tracking cookies, which collect your information as you browse a site to create targeted advertisements. Social media companies such as Meta (formerly known as Facebook) have been known to track and target teens with personalized ads to continue their engagement with the site, according to TechCrunch. And some of these ads can spread misinformation. For example, targeted political ads may convince children that Trump won the 2020 election. AI algorithms used in social media prioritize highly shared content and targeted advertisements over quality information from government and health agencies, according to a 2020 study.
When your kids are young, you can and should supervise their Internet use to protect them from misinformation and other dangers, Diamond says. But this is only a temporary solution. It’s more important that children learn the skills to thoughtfully and critically evaluate whether something they read online is true. Because kids emulate their parents, Diamond says parents should be mirroring these behaviors and showing them how to ask questions. These can include:
Who wrote what I’m reading?
What is the intention behind the article? Are they trying to sell something to me or persuade me to do something?
Is the story making a lot of assumptions? Is it trying to predict the future?
What evidence is the author using to back up their claims?
Is the article telling you to just trust them?
Owens encourages kids to take a pause when they see something online that looks too good to be true. By pausing, children can take the time to reset their emotions and look for signs of clickbait or misinformation, she says. And if they’re still unsure, they can get a trusted authority figure involved to understand the intentions behind a message or story.
Learning to identify the signs of misinformation could help prevent a future generation of fake news. “We can’t think this is just an adult problem. Misinformation is impacting our children, and every single one of us has a responsibility to take action,” Owens says.
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