If ever there was a time to take a closer look at our students and their ability to differentiate between “real” and “fake” news, this is it. We are in the midst of constant dissemination of information from thousands of sources as we face one of the most unprecedented and unbelievably stressful times in our lives with COVID-19. What can we do as health educators to ensure that kids can examine sources, spot fake news, and protect themselves from lies and unnecessary fears? A favorite site of mine called Webwise.ie has a great short video that explains what fake news is as an introduction to the topic. For starters, it is suggested that we refer to ”fake news” as “false information”, because the term “fake news” is all too often associated with politics.
Why is it a problem?
False information poses a threat to young minds because there is a steady flow of misleading stories influencing every aspect of their lives. The sheer volume and content they are exposed to daily via social media, the government, politicians, and the general public can be both overwhelming and confusing. This is true no matter what type of information they are privy to, as viewing valid information can be just as daunting.
Whether it is through Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, YouTube or any other media outlet, 95% of children who own Smartphones (www.neatoday.org, 2013) are exposed to information their young minds are too emotionally immature to handle. The World Economic Forum refers to this alarming spread of misinformation as “digital wildfires” in our “hyper-connected” world. (www.weforum.org, 2013) The idea behind feed-scrolling on these sites is that repetition will lead to belief. The end result of some of these beliefs can lead to high levels of anxiety. About one-third of teens surveyed by the CDC said they felt persistent sadness or hopelessness. Social media, says John Richter, director of Public Policy at the Mental Health Association, is exacerbating this trend. It can be polarizing as we see with political discourse and anxiety-inducing as we’ve been seeing with media coverage of the current pandemic.
What can we do?
It’s up to us to teach our students to take the time to seek out what is true in a virtual world that is often filled with lies and misinformation. In order to do so, we must provide them with the resources so they may recognize conspiracy sites as well as people with little to no experience claiming to be health experts. I’d like to consider us health experts who can help them in this area. I’ve been teaching middle school students how to spot fake information, analyze propaganda, and practice media literacy for thirty years. Ultimately, I know we all want social media to be constructive, and for our students to be able to make informed decisions using the correct platforms. They also need to know when to give their brains a break.
The following sites/lessons have proved to be beneficial when teaching these concepts to my middle school students.
Now is as good a time as any to remind young people that we are living in a world that is inundated with information that is targeting their impressionable brains, and that this information is often both false and damaging to their overall well-being. As adults, we must also be vigilant to root out this misinformation in both our private and professional lives.
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