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Why Uncertainty Leaves Us Vulnerable to Misinformation

Protect your teen from becoming vulnerable to misinformation in uncertain times.

Key points

  • With issues stemming from COVID-19, war, and a growing political divide in our country, we may feel unsettled and unsure about the future.
  • During times of uncertainty, we may be more susceptible to inaccurate – even dangerous – information.
  • Parents can teach teens how to access credible information free from bias and spin.
Photo by Yan Krukov from Pexels
Source: Photo by Yan Krukov from Pexels

Misinformation is hurting our society, particularly our teens. And in this extended period of uncertainty, we’re especially vulnerable.

How the Brain Is Designed to Manage Stress

Human beings are designed to manage stress — the type of stress we can see, feel, and react to. When prehistoric humans saw a tiger in the wild, their stress response kicked into gear, and they knew what to do — to run or to fight. But the tiger we can see is not the scariest thing that we deal with. The most unsettling thing we deal with as humans is wondering whether or not a tiger is lurking in the grass. When you don’t know if it exists or where it is, it generates anxiety.

How We “Fill in the Blanks” When Uncertain

Now is a time of great uncertainty. With ongoing issues stemming from COVID-19, the war in Ukraine, and the continuously growing political divide in our country, we may feel uncomfortable, unsettled, and unsure about the future. In situations like these, it’s natural to want to fill in the blanks of uncertainty by creating our own answers. We usually do that in one of two ways. The first is with catastrophic thought – or imagining the worst. When we wonder if a tiger lurks in the grass, we imagine how ferocious and deadly it could be. We imagine the worst possible scenario as a way to satisfy our need for answers. But as we begin to live in that reality, we feel even more unsettled and anxious, making us increasingly vulnerable to physical and emotional harm.

Looking for Easy Answers

The second way we fill in the blanks of uncertainty is by looking for easy answers without knowing if they are true or not. When we seek these explanations, many people are willing to take advantage of our uncertainty by sharing misinformation. These simple answers satisfy our temporary need to know. But often, they do more to drive us apart than bring us together. In fact, sometimes people create easy answers that scapegoat others.

Why Uncertainty Leaves Us Vulnerable

During a time of uncertainty, we’re more vulnerable to people who do not have our best interest at heart and give us inaccurate – even dangerous – information. We must have conversations about this with young people and tell them what we know and don’t know.

We also need to help them learn what’s credible and what’s not, including which information sources to trust. We must teach our children to be skeptical of easy answers and to learn how to navigate complexity by taking advantage of the science and the people who are seeking real solutions.

Discerning Fact from Fiction

The ability to discern fact from fiction is a critical skill to have in everyday life, but even more so during a global crisis like war or a pandemic. Parents can teach teens how to access accurate information free from bias and spin. They can explain how to read beyond the headlines and point to credible sources such as local leaders, scientific agencies, and medical centers. If the resource is found online, they can learn to check sources cited by the author and ensure the article is legitimate.

Preparing Our Teens to Navigate Misinformation

We also need to understand, as parents, that our young people are being exposed to information at a rate that we never experienced in our youth. The social media platforms they turn to for entertainment and connection can often be fountains of misinformation and disinformation. It’s important for teens and tweens to think critically about information presented to them and learn to pause and evaluate before sharing it with others. When in doubt, resources like The Poynter Institute, Common Sense Media, and the Center for Parent and Teen Communication can help provide guidance for navigating the complexities of digital media as a family.

Young people can think critically about tough topics like war, political unrest, and global turmoil. Let’s guide them to understand that wrestling with uncertainty is far better than accepting divisive misinformation. We must explicitly state that they should be particularly skeptical of simple solutions offered by politicians or media influencers who scapegoat others. This will better prepare them to lead us in the future and create the type of world that will be better for all.

Always Remember Human Connection

Remember that during times of uncertainty, the one thing we can be sure of is that human connection matters. And when we draw together within families and across communities to support each other, we can get through almost anything. The future will be built by well-worn paths between neighbors. That’s the best way to manage what we don’t know.

This post was co-authored by Eden Pontz, executive producer, and Taylor Tropea, communications associate, at the Center for Parent and Teen Communication.

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