Pandemic myths are everywhere on social media and they are dangerous for children


After Stephanie Africk handed her daughter a mask as she left their Boston home, she was amazed to hear what her 13-year-old daughter had to say: “Masks don’t work and kids don’t even get COVID. The position went against science and everything his family had discussed.

Where did the adolescent get this information? Social media. “She got the information – or misinformation – from someone on TikTok that she respects and believes in.”

Pandemic disinformation recently prompted YouTube to ban the accounts of several popular anti-vaccines, as well as other content promoting false vaccine information. But it’s not just the COVID-19 misinformation teens can be exposed to on social media. A 2017 Common Sense Media Report– published right after the 2016 election – reported that 31% of children who shared a story online later found out that it was inaccurate.

Misinformation includes outright lies, like this vaccines contain microchips where activists start wildfires in Oregon. But it can also be a misinterpretation of the facts, like when social media headlines claimed that New York banned hot dogs. (The city had actually unveiled a plan to cut spending on meat.)

Misinformation can have a negative effect on people, especially children. But it can also be dangerous. A joint investigation 2020 in the United States, Harvard, Northwestern, Rutgers and Northeastern universities found that people under 25 were more likely to believe disinformation about COVID-19 than older people, regardless of their political affiliation. Some teens refuse to be vaccinated based on false claims they saw on social media.

Some platforms have stepped up. In addition to its anti-vax ban, YouTube announced in August that it would turn off “Autoplay” for viewers under the age of 17 after criticism that users were sometimes pushed towards conspiracy theory videos. In 2019, Instagram announced it would start working with third party fact checkers and tag inaccurate messages as false information.

But although TikTok Community rules prohibit false or misleading content, an August report from MediaMatters found that the video-sharing app’s algorithm continues to promote viral videos containing vaccine misinformation.

So how can parents protect teens from lies on social media platforms and protect them from dangerous misinformation? By helping them become smarter digital citizens. Here’s how.

How misinformation creeps in

Children and adolescents are considered “digital natives” for their ability to adapt to technologies such as smartphones, apps and social media platforms. But just because teens grew up with the Internet, doesn’t mean they have the cognitive skills to interpret complicated information.

“There is a misconception that because teens are digital natives, they are better at spotting reliable information online,” says Katy byron, director of MediaWise, a non-partisan organization that teaches media literacy and fact-checking skills. “But research has repeatedly shown that teens have a hard time identifying facts on the Internet.”

While people of all ages can fall for the misinformation trap, children can be at a disadvantage: the frontal lobe of the human brain does not develop fully until around 25 years of age. “This part of the brain manages impulse control, future thinking and judgment,” explains Michel Riche, pediatrician and director of the Digital Wellness Lab. “He’s the brain’s air traffic controller.” Rich adds that kids are sometimes not ready to navigate the information in these apps: “It’s like throwing car keys at a toddler. “

Teens can also absorb false information simply because of what scientists call the illusory truth effect, which is a tendency to believe false information if you hear it multiple times. (In fact, researchers at Vanderbilt University found that children as young as five use repetition as a clue to truth.) If, for example, you’ve read that giraffes are marsupials, you probably won’t believe it. But what if you hear this fake fact on TikTok and then read it on Facebook? You might start to assume that must be true. (We promise not.)

While teens are not Following prone to the illusory truth effect than adults, they spend more time on social media apps: a survey of 60,000 families in the Qustodio parental control app found that in March and April 2020, during periods of lockdown, children spent an average of 97 minutes per day on YouTube, 95 minutes on TikTok and 60 minutes on Instagram. A separate study found that in 2020, adults were spending 82 minutes per day on social media.

“I used to assume that what was shared on social media, especially if there were a lot of views or likes, that it was true,” says Angie Li, 17, who checks the facts for the MediaWise Teen Fact-Checking Network. “I was like, ‘Why would so many people believe something wrong? “”

How to protect your children from disinformation

For many parents, removing access to social media sites like YouTube and TikTok is not the best solution. “My kids have found some of their passions and interests through YouTube and the Internet at large,” says Africk. “It’s a difficult compromise. Rather than avoiding social media, parents can help develop their teens’ digital skills.

Bowel check. Encourage your kids to notice their feelings when they see content on social media, said Michael robb, Head of Research at Common Sense Media. “Algorithms often broadcast things that induce outrage or things that increase the intensity of the emotion,” he says, “because that’s what’s most likely to be shared.”

It doesn’t mean that all angry content is misinformation, but it’s a good signal to start investigating. To help, parents can encourage teens to check out this painting to internalize what a piece of content made them feel. If the information makes them restless and anxious, they should dig deeper to see if the content is really true.

“It’s a pause signal before you hit the Like or Share button and think, ‘Wait, let me check if this is accurate and reliable,'” says Byron.

Consider the source. Have the children research the source of information. Where did this information first appear? Where is it shared now? Who benefits if you believe the story? Where does content appear outside of social media? “It seems like a lot of questions, but they can become automatic after a while,” says Robb. (Read this to learn more about how to help kids spot fake stories and propaganda.)

Beware of influencers. Researchers from the University of Florida found that when a celebrity approved a post in an Instagram post, subjects were more likely to believe it was true. But celebrities and influencers aren’t necessarily experts.

“During the election, we had to check the facts about Kanye West. He posted a photo of the Kentucky electoral system saying he was ahead of Trump and Biden, that was completely wrong, ”said Isaac Harte, another member of the MediaWise Teen Fact-Checking Network.

Robb suggests parents gently remind children to gather information from a variety of sources, especially credible organizations.

“It’s good to think of information literacy as something that develops over time, experience and learning,” says Robb. “A conversation on this topic is unlikely to be enough to convince a child to immediately distrust an influencer they feel connected with, but a parent can at least reinforce some of the literacy habits we all should be using.” when we come across information. “

Expert advice for parents in Africk’s situation? Be patient, listen to your child, and continue the conversation.

Recheck. In ancient times (like, five years ago), experts advised looking for spelling mistakes or strange graphics, or checking the “about” page or reference list for sources. These are not bad strategies, but today misinformation can come from sources that seem polite and reliable.

Instead, Byron recommends that kids click to open a few new tabs on their browser and look for the information elsewhere, a process called side reading. Do reliable sources have similar information? What do other outlets say about the source in question?

The most important? Tell children to trust their brains, not technology. Rich says, “There is no technology or software that will protect your child like the software that sits between your child’s ears.

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