Teens and Misinformation: 3 Parenting Tips
What’s fact versus what’s not? Guide your child to combat misinformation.
Posted December 27, 2021 | Reviewed by Tyler Woods
- Tweens and teens, even when highly tech-savvy, are vulnerable to misinformation and should be encouraged to cultivate analytical thinking skills.
- The “fact-checking attempts” rule: Prioritize information with clear attempts at fact-checking.
- The “well-rounded discussions” rule: Promote content with open-minded perspectives and well-rounded discussions over absolutist solutions.
- The “specific authority figures” rule: Recommend references of authority figures who are specific and with relevant credentials.
This post is co-authored by Becky Pham, a Ph.D. Student at the University of Southern California, and Yalda T. Uhls.
“Misinformation” generally refers to inaccurate claims in the media that might or might not be intended to mislead the audience. The diffusion of misinformation has been exacerbated by our quick, easy, and low-cost access to online content and social media.
Misinformation causes damage faster than it can be fixed, with false beliefs consistently found to persist even after the piece of information is corrected and accurate. For example, a 2020 study found that once misinformation was out on Twitter, it took seven days for the debunking tweets to match the quantity of the misinformation tweets.
Although tweens and teens are typically tech-savvy and on top of the latest media trends, they are still impressionable and susceptible to peer pressure. Research has shown that even when they suspect that the information at hand might not be accurate, they will still share it online if their friends do the same.
In fact, adolescents are more similar to young children than to adults in their susceptibility to misinformation. Tweens and teens can struggle to discern what’s fact versus what’s not, especially within highly controversial topics such as conspiracy theories, social policies, and political issues.
To deal with misinformation effectively, it’s crucial for parents to cultivate analytical thinking through straightforward and dependable tips. By using the three rules below, you and your tween or teen will start to develop strategies to discern accurate information from misinformation.
1. The “fact-checking attempts” rule
Teach your tween or teen to independently examine whether the media content has demonstrated clear attempts at fact-checking, or at least question whether reported events have been fact-checked. This can be done through simple cross-checks of the same information across different websites or social media channels, reading up on the source’s self-claimed values and mission, and checking public reactions to these self-claims.
Fact-checking is even more pertinent to commentary-based videos on social media (such as YouTube or TikTok) that blend both facts and the online influencers’ opinions. Such content often is produced at an accelerated rate to catch viral topics and sometimes targets younger consumers, with little to zero effort put toward fact-checking.
In the event that you and your child have some time and wish to closely examine whether a particular news story has been fact-checked, use some of the online fact-checking tools here.
Through trial and error, select the tools that should work the best for you. Albeit more time-consuming, this process will help build your family’s accumulative knowledge on the various ways in which scientists and educators have fought misinformation.
2. The “well-rounded discussions” rule
Highly susceptible to peer pressure, tweens and teens will share content that could be false but that has been shared by their friends, for fear of being ridiculed as the odd one out. Passive sharing with little thinking, instead of malicious actors, could be the bigger issue in spreading misinformation.
Talk to your child about pieces of information they have shared online that is also visible to you. Listen to their story. Then constructively and gently challenge them to be more mindful in sharing their posts online if you feel that they had not thought through the whole process.
Most importantly, explain to your child that when they are sharing something online, they have become another “source” of information (like a website or a social media channel) whose credibility is now open to other people’s judgment even without them knowing.
Educate your tween or teen that the media landscape out there is complicated, that different people can have different opinions, and that they can take in some ideas and toss others.
If they are in doubt over whether a piece of media is misinformation, encourage them to refrain from sharing.
3. The “specific authority figures” rule
In addition to websites and social media as sources of information, references of authority are another point of contact that help tweens and teens decide whether they can trust the message.
Not all references of authority are trustworthy, or are both trustworthy and persuasive. Misinformation related to COVID-19 that circulated on Twitter has been found to include non-specific authority references such as “Taiwanese experts” or “a doctor friend.” Moreover, an individual’s attitude towards authority figures plays an important role in how people perceive and endorse misinformation. Even when information is from legitimate sources of authority, people will not be likely to comply if they have little trust in the authority.
Encourage your child to question why they find certain authority figures online to be more trustworthy than others. Show your child ways to discern more legitimate experts by focusing on the expert’s relevant and specific credentials. Combine this rule with rules #1 and #2 above if you can.
For example, the authority figure might be presented as a “Researcher” or a “Doctor,” with visuals of a lab scientist’s or a doctor’s white coat. But if their credentials for science or medical expertise are not spelled out clearly or are not related to the conversations, encourage your child to do more cross-checking before deciding whether they could be trusted.
You could recommend your child to question further, “Does this expert demonstrate clear attempts at fact-checking the reported events?” or, “Does this expert promote a well-rounded discussion surrounding this divided topic instead of an absolutist viewpoint?”
Essentially, you want to cultivate analytical skills in your tween or teen so that they become independent and sophisticated consumers. This task is not a one-way street. As your child grows older and technology keeps changing, they may become even more sophisticated media consumers than you!
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