Helping boys navigate the world of fake news

In an online world where reputable and not so reputable websites and social media platforms vie for user attention and time, teaching boys how to decipher between real and fake news has never been so important.

Boys are brought up to learn through play, using make believe and their amazing imaginations to think up ways to entertain themselves; from taking on pirates on the high seas, to having ninja battles against enemy teddies and cushions.

As boys age they start to become more aware of what is real and pretend in their lives – moving away from the world of imaginative play and more into the world around them, including the digital landscape.

Without growing understanding of websites and social media platforms available online, boys can easily get caught up in stories and campaigns aiming to use deceptive techniques or complete untruths to engage audiences and promote unreal news or movements.

Research into the concept of fake news and the impact it has on young people is a relatively new development, as researchers “catch up” with the phenomenon and spend vital time trying to gain information.

Researchers from the University of Salford and CBBC Newsround in the UK conducted research into the impact of fake news on young people in late 2017, finding adolescents were in urgent need of tools to help them understand and navigate social media.

Researcher and University of Salford Media Practice senior lecturer Beth Hewitt wrote in her article How to spot fake news: an expert’s guide for young people on the Conversation website that trust was a major issue for young people trying to comprehend the concept of fake news.

“Above all, we found that young people need to be able to trust what they hear and see around them as they’re growing up,” Ms Hewitt wrote.

“If young people don’t believe what they’re reading is true, then their trust will be eroded – and then they could stop believing anything at all.”

“In the long run, this means they won’t care about being part of big debates about politics, culture and the society in which they live.”

The vast scope of fake news – from complete and obvious fabrication, to subtle mistruths and subjective reporting – is a major hurdle for children to understand and overcome as they search the internet for relevant and accurate news.

A 2016 Stanford University History Education Group study into the comprehension of real and fake news online of more than 7,500 US children and adolescents found a lack of understanding and ability to decipher between the two, despite significant understanding of how to use websites and social media platforms.

Lead author Professor Sam Wineburg said many people assumed young people were perceptive of fake online news because of their social media fluency.

“Our work shows the opposite is true,” Prof. Wineburg said.

Researchers studied participants’ news literacy including; their ability to judge Facebook and Twitter feeds, blog posts, photographs and other digital messages.

“In every case we were taken aback by students’ lack of preparation…ordinary people once relied on publishers, editors, and subject matter experts to vet the information they consumed – but on the unregulated internet, all bets are off,” the authors wrote in the study.

The study included many different opportunities to gauge student understanding of news objectivity and truthfulness. From studying student understanding of advertisements and “sponsored content” to their ability to identify misleading surveys created to promote commercial interests.

As with most concepts and education regarding the digital world, experts recommend parents start teaching their children age-appropriate skills to navigate the internet and decipher what is real and fake information as early as possible.

With our reliance on the digital sphere ever increasing, it is vital children learn basic concepts and continue to develop these as they get older to equip them with key digital skills throughout their adolescence and into adulthood.

The following basic questions are an easy guide to judging the reliability of web content which parents can use to prompt their children to learn to look beyond the words and pictures on the screen;

  • who wrote it? Are they a reputable source/journalist/photographer?
  • why did they write it? Why do they want you to read/engage with it?
  • what does it look like? Are there sensational headlines and photos attached (clickbait) to encourage you to read the link?
  • where is the URL address from? Is it a proper address? From a reliable source?
  • when was it posted? Are other reputable news sites reporting it?
  • how was the article written, is it grammatically correct? Does it seem like it’s telling the story equally from an objective point of view?