How to Teach Teens to Navigate Misinformation and Fake News

Today’s media landscape is drowning in misinformation and disinformation, which makes it hard to decide what information is trustworthy. Confusing matters further, there are people who claim that factually correct stories are fake news because they disagree with them. It doesn’t help that social media algorithms amplify content that is most likely to get a reaction. (What enrages, engages!) Or that people create “bots” and fake accounts with the explicit goal of spreading disinformation.

But as parents and caregivers, you can help teens understand what to do with the media they encounter. And you can guide them to make good decisions about what they learn. You do this by developing their “media literacy” – skills needed to help find, understand, and use credible information to stay informed. 

With so much bad information available, it’s crucial to build these skills now. As adults, we must model what we’re teaching. Before learning the necessary skills, it’s essential to have a basic understanding of misinformation, disinformation, and media or digital “literacy.” 

...try to think: 'misinformation is a mistake,' but 'disinformation is deliberate.'

The Difference Between Misinformation and Disinformation

What is misinformation? Misinformation is generally considered false information that’s posted, shared, or passed along online with no malicious intent behind it. The sender could have good intentions in wanting you to be informed, but they are mistakenly sharing incorrect information. 

What is disinformation? Disinformation takes misinformation a step further. It’s when content is misleading, false and posted with some potential gain for the person, group, or organization that posted it. If this seems confusing, try to think: “misinformation is a mistake”, but “disinformation is deliberate.”

A Tidal Wave of Misinformation and Disinformation 

There is so much content being shared online about world events in which the videos or photos are taken out of context, from the wrong location, a different time period, intentionally fabricated using AI, and more. This content spreads so quickly that it may be viewed millions of times before someone points out it is false, reveals the real source, or debunks it. 

Sometimes the false information takes over faster than “fact checkers” can verify it. It continues to spread because people share it having no idea what they’re sharing is wrong. That serves others who want the information out there. 

Why People Spread Disinformation

There are plenty of people, groups, and organizations who want to help shape or influence opinions. Others may benefit financially from spreading certain information far and wide. Sometimes, the content is designed to turn people against one another. Disinformation can incite conflict and hatred and you want to protect your child. It may promote polarization – dividing people into opposing groups, or tribalism – a strong loyalty to one’s tribe, party, or group. Sadly, it can make people less likely to want to resolve conflicts. 

How to Navigate and Identify Misinformation and Disinformation

Increase your media literacy. In other words, learn how to effectively access, analyze, and engage with media messages. Also, understand how to think, and take action around the media, using the power of information and communication to make a difference to yourself and others. Become a digital sleuth! 

Just because something has “gone viral” on social media doesn’t mean it’s true. It’s always good to look for sources on social media. Be skeptical about what you’re seeing. Assume that you have to check it yourself. Once you’ve seen something, begin by asking yourself a few questions. 

Questions to ask when you encounter media:  

  • Does this content encourage an extreme reaction from you? (For example, if it makes you angry or scared — that should be a red flag.)
  • Who is the author or creator?
  • Who is the target audience?
  • What is the source of the information and what do you know about this source? (Are they a credible journalist or organization or artificial intelligence? Do they have biases or an agenda?)
  • What is the motivation for sharing this information?
  • What qualifications do the experts included in the content have?
  • Does the content provide evidence for what’s being said? (Does that evidence make sense?)
  • Is the website URL legitimate?
  • If content takes you to a website, how does it look? (For example, are there grammatical errors, words in all caps, claims with no sources, or sensationalized images?)
  • Is there anything missing from the message? (And if so, might it be important to include?)
  • What makes you think this is credible?
  • Is this content a joke? (Did it come from a humor website like The Onion, for example?)

5 Ways to Verify Content

It may only take seconds or a few minutes to determine that what you’re reading, seeing, or hearing is false. Show your teen how you fact-check the media you consume. Looking for guidance? Here are some good places to check while keeping a skeptical mindset. Use these yourself and show your teens how to use them. Verify before sharing something that could be false. 

  1. Sites like Snopes, FactCheck.org, Politifact.com, RealClear Politics, and Metabunk.org offer places to start your search for the truth. Google and Wikipedia may provide information that helps you clarify the story. It’s common to discover information that debunks, updates, or corrects. 
  2. See who else is reporting the story and what they are saying. Are other well-known, credible mainstream outlets reporting the story? If so, are they reporting it the same way with the same information or video? If they aren’t, consider digging deeper into your research. Know that many professional news outlets, including the Associated Press, Reuters, CNN, The Guardian, for example, have rigorous editorial guidelines that they go through before putting something on air or online. These outlets also often publish opinion pieces, columns, and editorials that may insert the author’s perspective into an article about a newsworthy event. However, it should be labeled as such to inform the reader it’s a piece layered with opinion, and not a “just the facts” news article. News outlets also make mistakes. When this happens they will issue corrections, which can usually be seen at the bottom of an online article. 
  3. If you’re online, look at a site’s “About Us” and contact sections. Investigate who is behind the site, who supports it, and who is associated with it. If you can see pictures of staff and their accurate contact information is listed, that suggests the site may be more legitimate. 
  4. Look closely at images and their context. With artificial intelligence and editing software, it’s easy to create images that look real but are fake. Not sure? Look for shadows on an image, or jagged or blurred edges around figures in the pictures. Other images may be real, but they are used in the wrong context or in an incorrect time period. Tools such as Google’s reverse image search can help. Google is also rolling out a feature called “About this image” that uses image history, metadata, and more to help determine if it was created from other content, includes artificial elements, and more.  
  5. Use your knowledge and common sense, and try to explain your thought process to your child to help them practice critical thinking skills. Common Sense Media and Poynter Institute’s MediaWise offer programming and advice to help teens become more critical and informed media consumers.

Use Parental Controls 

It’s important to help your young person understand what’s happening in the news and what they may have seen by allowing them to share their emotions and ask questions. If and when you discuss what they’ve seen, try to do so in an age-appropriate way. But know that there is some scary media out there that could be traumatic for your child to see. That’s when you may want to use the parental controls that many digital platforms offer. 

  • Meta, which owns Facebook, Instagram, and Threads, has an Education Hub for families with tips and resources on user safety. They also offer a tool that lets parents set time limits and monitor their child’s time in the app.
  • TikTok offers a Family Pairing feature that gives parents the ability to link their account to their child’s to control content settings. This feature allows parents and guardians to filter out videos with keywords or hashtags they don’t want young people to see in their feeds.
  • Google, which owns YouTube, has a Family Link tool that lets parents set up supervised experiences for kids, establish screen time limits, and filter certain content. Depending on your child’s age, YouTube Kids could be a safer space to explore. 

And sometimes the most important action to consider: turn off the device! 

Don’t Just Rely on Others

There are people at many media outlets and platforms who are tasked with going through videos, photos, articles, and more to determine what is real and uncover the original sources. But this can take time. Unfortunately, too often, that time offers plenty of people the chance to view the content before it’s proven wrong. While some social media platforms do have systems in place to remove misinformation and disinformation, it does not guarantee that posts will be taken down. 

Be a Parent or Caregiver First

We believe that most people want to get correct, factual information and still believe in the concept of a shared truth. 

Ultimately, even the best media literacy training and safeguards don’t alleviate the responsibility you have to stand by your child. Whether you serve as a sounding board as your child talks through their feelings, or act as a teacher as they learn how to navigate the media terrain, your child will benefit from steadfast support. There are tools available to both of you, but do not assume they are foolproof. Parental controls and monitoring systems aren’t perfect — they may change, glitch, or let inappropriate content slip through the cracks. For when, and if, that happens, let your child know they can always come to you to talk or ask questions about what they’ve seen.

Understanding and teaching these skills is not only about understanding misinformation and disinformation; it’s about your child’s well-being. Our teens are constantly seeking answers to the age-old questions “Who am I?” and “Am I normal?” They compare themselves to others around them. This creates plenty of self-doubt in their lives. That doubt is reinforced with social media when they compare themselves to carefully curated versions of peers using filters, makeup, editing, and more that lead to images that don’t represent reality. 

So, it’s essential to talk to your child about what they see online. Listen to them when they ask questions. Teach your child media literacy, use safeguards that digital platforms offer, and maintain open communication. These strategies will help prepare you both to face an ever-changing media landscape.

About Center for Parent and Teen Communication

CPTC is fortunate to receive editorial contributions from a range of multi-disciplinary experts, journalists, youth, and more.

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