Should We Teach Children About Fake News?

Should We Teach Children About Fake News

Today’s always on, always connected world is like nothing humanity has ever experienced before, and the consequences of continuous media exposure are only just beginning to become apparent.

Should we teach children about fake news? The answer is a resounding yes – but parents and teachers have already been teaching the fundamentals of critical thinking for decades.

Teaching Critical Thinking

Science, humanities, English, mathematics and the arts all provide children with the tools they need to deconstruct fake news: the tools to read messages, analyze their content, question their intent and approach them from different viewpoints.

In the sciences, we encourage children to ask “why?”. In history, we study the messages of the past and question their motivation. In English, we explore the subtleties of language, embellishment and buzzwords. Mathematics helps us solve problems and spot errors. The arts give us alternative viewpoints, abstract thought and opinion.

Critical thinking helps us see through the veil of fake news (and indeed legitimate news) – to understand the motivations behind it, see if the quoted facts and figures add up and to decode the language being used. Even at a glance, a critical thinker can have an inkling about the angle a news story is trying to take.

Children are vulnerable to lies. It’s the responsibility of educators and families to instill critical thought into children, to encourage questions and to confront difficult subjects in an age-appropriate manner. At Clayesmore, critical thinking is an integral part of our students’ learning and we’re constantly looking for interesting ways to integrate it into the classroom. It’s more important now than ever, in a time when children turn to the internet to find answers.

Fake News isn’t New – but Social Media is

When Donald Trump began using the term “fake news” in 2017, it quickly became common vocabulary. While he didn’t coin the term, he certainly popularised it – and now embodies both sides of the fake news phenomenon itself.

Fake news employs shock, scandal and sensationalism in varying degrees. It usually contains little to no legitimate research and relies on eye-catching headlines. It’s commonly used as propaganda. You could say this of most tabloid newspapers.

Fake news in the digital age has taken a new form – no longer just journalistically poor, but overtly and brazenly false, operating with little or no scrutiny. The crucial element is how it’s spread; rapidly and selectively.

Facebook, while certainly not alone in propagating a tide of digital fake news, has recently been in the spotlight as an election-swaying tool – for its questionable handling of data and the way it has been used maliciously, to spread fake news.

It’s this ease of exposure and the passive, near automatic way we consume content and news today that is concerning – especially for impressionable children and young people. But, while adults are giving their attention to Facebook, the platforms preferred by children are escaping the same levels of scrutiny that Facebook has been under.

The Generational Technology Divide

There’s always been a generational divide with technology: like how parents once feared the effects of television on children. Parents today are acutely aware of the dangers of the internet and media in general – but technology is still used to comfort and occupy children when it may not be appropriate. A growing number of youngsters have their own smartphones that they use with complete freedom.

Children are using different apps and social media platforms to their parents. Snapchat is ubiquitous with the millennial generation, themselves now becoming parents – but around a quarter of all Snapchat users are under 18. Users aged over 34 are rare.

The way Snapchat presents content is primarily through corporate sponsorship – and although parent company Snap has a semblance of social awareness, it’s a money that talks. Snapchat’s USP has been privacy and anonymity – which makes monitoring children’s activity difficult (remember – instead of snooping, pay the same kind of respect you’d expect. Talk to children and help them understand the dos and don’ts of the internet, and to establish trust).

Both parents and children use YouTube, but while parents favour platforms like Instagram and Facebook – children are fanatical about YouTube – and the way fake news spreads on video sites is very different.

YouTube – Children’s Favourite

Children are completely absorbed by YouTube, as this 2017 study by Ofcom discovered:

“…Half of 3-4s and more than eight in ten 5-15s now use YouTube. It is the most recognised content brand among 12-15s, and the one they are most likely to think includes their age group in its target audience, saying either that it is aimed specifically at their age group or at everyone. It is the one they would turn to first for all types of content they say is important to them, and the one they say they would miss the most if it was taken away. More 8-11s and 12-15s also say they prefer watching content on YouTube than TV programmes…”

YouTube is filled with inane, directionless content aimed at children, like toy unboxing videos and amateur-made Disney and Pixar knockoffs. The harm or enrichment this content provides is an entirely different debate – but the way YouTube serves content means that inappropriate content can routinely best YouTube’s algorithms.

Conspiracy theories are rampant on YouTube – from flat Earth to fake moon landings, from lizard people to alien abductions – everyone with the means to edit video and an unprovable idea has found a voice on YouTube. Many conspiracy theorists post videos claiming that tragic events, such as the Grenfell Tower fire, are fake. So-called “crisis actors” are used to play victims, according to conspiracy theorists.

YouTube in itself isn’t a dangerous platform – but these ideas are incredibly dangerous, especially to young minds, and even more so in a time of advanced CGI that’s nearly indistinguishable from reality. What are we supposed to believe when we’re confronted with something so convincingly real?

Knowing What’s Real News

That’s difficult to say, because news is rarely reported objectively – even by the biggest names in journalism. Emotion, bias, storytelling and corporate or political sponsorship can and do affect even the most legitimate news agencies in the world.

Just because it’s a story from the BBC or Reuters doesn’t guarantee accuracy and truth – just as a story from an alternative news website isn’t guaranteed to be poisonous. It’s always wise to take several points of view, even those you’d normally oppose, to establish a rounded opinion or fact-base. If something seems far-fetched, do some more research. If you can’t find any other references to it, it might just be fake news.

This applies to adults as much as it does to children. Aligning with statistics and stories that fit a certain worldview is a life-limiting trait that gives you only half of the truth at best. By embracing critical thinking as parents and teachers, we can equip ourselves and the children in our care to better navigate the media landscape.

A Different Kind of Boarding School

We are Clayesmore School, an independent school in Dorset. Children love being here – and we love helping them become well-rounded critical thinkers. Come and see us at our next open day, we’d love to show you around our school.