By Lauren Azrin
Next time you’re at school or work, at a restaurant or a store, look up for a second from your cell phone, from the small screen enclosed in your fingertips that’s closing you off from the rest of the world, and see what’s around you. An onslaught of people, both teens and adults, isolated for the same reason that you just were, may appear right before your eyes. As all of you were looking at your phones, you were being drowned by a pounding waterfall of information from social media platforms, search engines, and news sites, both real and fake. With this constant surge of information, how can people, especially teens, possibly distinguish what’s true from what’s false, or even what's just extremely biased?
It is easy to say that you can’t rely on everything you see on the internet to be true. Whether it’s your friend's recent Facebook post with a link to a site you’ve never heard of, or a google search where misleading information comes up, it can be hard to take it all in. But for teens, who are in an important age of development and growth, it is crucial to be able to understand and trust what they hear around them. Teens are growing up in a society that lacks trust, among other things, and are constantly learning false information that they can't interpret to be true or false. It's hard enough for adults to decode the fake news, let alone teens.
The problem isn’t kids’ lack of understanding of the subject; most are aware that fake news exists and understand what it means. The problem is that it’s extremely difficult for kids to determine what’s true or not, especially when it piles up before them on social media.
The University of Salford partnered with BBC News to conduct a study led by Beth Hewitt on kids ranging from 9-14 to see if they could spot fake news, according to Public Radio International (PRI). After the study, Hewitt stated to PRI that, “The results show that digital literacy should be part of the curriculum in schools, helping kids question who’s writing articles, where links and pictures come from, and whether the information has been confirmed elsewhere.”
In another study done by BBC News on a group of teens from Cardinal Wiseman School in Birmingham, Alabama, BBC states, “The pupils asked all the right questions but came to all the wrong conclusions, seeing lies where truth resided, and truth where lies ran rampant.” Here, once again, the evidence shows that students are not being properly educated on media literacy and on how to decode the web.
At Stanford University researchers had even scarier results, when more than 7,800 students in middle school, high school, and college were evaluated on their ability to determine how reliable sources were, such as tweets, comments, and articles.
According to NPR, the results concluded that students were consistently unable to determine a source's credibility and accepted new information without enough evidence. More than 80% of the studied middle schoolers believed that sponsored content that they found online was part of a factual story. Most of the studied high school students accepted the photographs they saw without checking or verifying to see if they were true. The high schoolers were also unable to tell real and fake news stories apart on Facebook. Additionally, most of the studied college students didn’t suspect any bias in a tweet they were shown from an activist group and couldn’t differentiate between a mainstream and fringe source.
These younger generations are growing up in a digital world that they will never escape as they continue to mature, yet they are unable to navigate it. This is a major problem that can never completely be stopped, however, there are many precautions that schools aren't taking that can help combat the media bias and fake news issues.
If schools educate their students on media literacy and how to navigate the internet cautiously, then it will become a habit for them later in life. Classes should teach students about how to interpret what they see online, the truth about search engines and filter bubbles, the ways to determine a source's reliability and accuracy, information about online links, and techniques to sort through the abundance of lies that they find online. Learning how to do any one of these can be extremely difficult, which is why students need to start learning these tricks as young as possible. Children need to know how to detect stories that are fake or even stories that are just embellished and biased.
Here are just a few techniques that can be used when attempting to uncover the truth while navigating online sources.
Find more information on a sources reliability before trusting what it says
Check the author's credibility
See if an article has links or references that are accurate
Try a Google reverse image search on the photos
Check if other sources that you trust are covering the same story
Read more into titles and descriptions to see if they lean a certain way and/or are biased
Check the websites domain to see if it has any added endings
Check the date to make sure a story was published when the event was going on
Look for quotes and evidence that prove the story is factual
Read further than just headlines to get a better understating of what the article is saying
Lastly, if you aren't positive about an article's accuracy, the number one thing not to do is to share it. You don't want information that is possibly false circulating around the internet more than it already has. If you apply these small changes into your daily routine of navigating news and social media, you will have much more power over what lies claim a spot in your brain in the truth section and over what toxic information you are able to filter out altogether.