Yikes: Kids Are Really Bad at Identifying Fake News

And with the amount of time they spend on social media, it's a real problem.

worried boy using laptop
Photo: Shutterstock

Every few months, it happens again—a flurry of excited posts from my kids' friends suddenly start to appear on my Instagram news feed:

"Instagram is executing a mass deletion of accounts on December 20. To protect your account, repost this warning and use the hashtag #KeepMyAccountSafe."

C'mon, guys... again?!

But here's the thing, according to a new study out of Standford University: Most kids don't know when news is fake. And by "most," we mean 82 percent of middle-schoolers couldn't distinguish between an ad labeled "sponsored content" and a real news story on a website.


Researchers asked more than 7,800 middle school, high school, and college students to complete 56 tasks, like differentiating an ad from a news story and determining which tweet in a series was most reliable. They found that students judged the credibility of tweets based not on the source of the material, but on how much detail they contained, or whether a large photo was attached. In fact, nearly 4 in 10 high-school students believed that a photo of deformed daisies was evidence of toxic conditions near a nuclear plant in Japan, based solely on the headline, even though no source or location for the photo was given.

nuclear daisies

"Overall, young people's ability to reason about information on the Internet can be summed up in one word: Bleak," wrote lead study author Sam Wineburg, a professor at Stanford's Graduate School of Education. "Many people assume that because young people are fluent in social media they are equally savvy about what they find there. Our work shows the opposite to be true."

Both Google and Facebook—which came under fire for sharing fake news during the election—are now taking steps to curb misleading content from making its way onto their platforms. But they won't be able to eliminate it altogether. Which is why it's now more important than ever to teach our kids to think critically and be a little more savvy when it comes to believing various information sources.

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"As recent headlines demonstrate, this work is more important now than ever," said Wineburg. "In the coming months, we look forward to sharing our assessments and working with educators to create materials that will help young people navigate the sea of disinformation they encounter online."

In the meantime, see our tips on teaching your kids to separate fact from fiction.

Hollee Actman Becker is a freelance writer, blogger, and a mom. Check out her website holleeactmanbecker.com for more, and then follow her on Twitter at @holleewoodworld.

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