Talking to Kids About Fake News

“Nothing on the internet is real anyway,” my youngest announced emphatically to his older brother. “You don’t know what you are talking about,” my oldest retorted as he searched for evidence that some ducks do indeed sleep with only one eye open. He was clearly ready to launch into an evidence-based defense of his beloved internet and the treasures found there.

Curious about where their conversation was headed, I hung back and listened. After about ten minutes of back and forth and only one fall-to-the-ground crying episode by the youngest, they seemed to agree on the following: some things are true; some aren’t. The internet is magic. Be careful out there.

Not a bad summary.

Teenager looking at camera and behind him is a computer screen with fake news

Fake news and media literacy

That said, their initial starting positions exemplify the polarized positions that don’t serve us very well when it comes to information literacy. Research shows that when we don’t have skills to judge what we read online, we are more vulnerable to either confirmation bias or amplified cynicism. In other words, the information I find is only true if it aligns with my beliefs. Or conversely, nothing is true and I shouldn’t trust anything.

While the words “fake news” weren’t even in our parenting lexicon five years ago, concern about the accuracy of online information is not new. Learning about sources, reliability, and authorship has been a central part of media literacy education for a long time. The game has changed, however. As online content platforms explode, we increasingly rely on tech giants to curate news. Politically motivated accusations of fake news have become weaponized. It is clear that corporate accountability, media literacy, and media justice are important underpinnings for our democracy.

The challenge is real. We’ve written before about the research demonstrating that being young and tech savvy does not mean that kids know how to evaluate digital information accurately or isn’t vulnerable to hate speech and misinformation. A recent study showed that two-thirds of students couldn’t tell the difference between news stories and ads on Slate’s homepage even when set off by the words “Sponsored Content”. Adults don’t fare much better either when it comes to spotting fake news.

So what can we do?

We can work to create systems that support reliable news and ensure that all children have access to media literacy tools and resources. Get started:

  1. Advocate for media literacy to be included in school curricula.
  2. Engage in conversations about corporate accountability, especially when it comes to misinformation including hate speech and racist content. Sign the petition to #StopHateForProfit and visit the website Change the Terms.
  3. Find community media organizations and support good journalism that reflect the communities they serve and aren’t driven solely by profit.

We can also keep talking to our kids.

Like most things when it comes to digital media, our kids benefit from conversations over time that build skills and understanding. This works better than delivering an instruction manual entitled “Places You Can’t Go.” With really young children, it’s imperative to create a very small and safe online “playground” for our kids to explore. As they get older though, we also need to equip them with frameworks that allow them to evaluate online spaces for emotional safety, hate speech and racism, accuracy, and reliability. School librarians and media specialists have an enormous amount to contribute in this realm so we aren’t walking this path alone.

As I anticipate another year of over-reliance on screens for socializing and learning, I am so grateful for projects and resources that help us have conversations with our kids about media literacy. We can coach them to deepen their understanding and build skills. In my case the goal might be to slowly guide them from “the internet is magic” to an understanding of algorithms, audience, and capitalism.

Looking for support this coming school year? Stay in touch for our fall launch of our online class CONNECTED: How to Show Up For Your Kids in the Digital Age. Also, check out the following resources:

Resources for talking about fake news and misinformation.

These resources are helpful as conversation starters, but they won’t do the talking for us. Here are some examples of open-ended questions you might ask to seed these important discussions:

“Did you know that our brains love “fake news?” It makes it easy for any of us to fall for things online. What do you think about that?”

“Where do you find information about the things that you care about? How do you decide where to go?”

“Have you been seeing anything that seems unfair or mean (to you or someone else) online?”

“What might you do if a friend shares something with you that you think isn’t true or is hurtful?”

“Fake news is entirely made up, not just news that we might disagree with. Have you ever seen fake news online? How would you know?”

“I’d love to see the original source for that… should we look together?”

“Hmmm… That certainly sounds right. But that doesn’t mean it’s true. Let’s look into it.”

“I’m wondering where you learned that. Tell me more.”

“We don’t use those words in our home because they are not true and they are hurtful. But I know that people use them online. I’m curious where you’ve seen or heard them?”

“Sounds like you are really curious about that and we both know it’s not always easy to find good information about it. Here are some sites you can check out if you want to learn more. Let me know if you find any useful ones too.”