Today’s kids learn how to use devices such as smartphones and tables before they read or even walk. My 1 year old quickly figured out how to swipe the screen on an iPad to find the app with a picture of Mickey Mouse. The “digital natives” don’t know anything different than a connected world where they can navigate social media such as Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram like a pro (I’ve been told by teenagers that Facebook is for old people). What they seem to be overwhelmingly terrible at is evaluating the information they get from internet.
Just How Bad Are Kids At Deciding What Is Credible?
The information available on the internet is mind-blowingly amazing. Never have we had so much data at our finger tips. However, much of this information is inaccurate, misleading or blatant lies. It has become difficult for adults to process what to believe and even harder for children. Our brains are wired to use heuristics (quick generalizations) to speed up information gathering and frequently we search for something on the internet until our biases are confirmed by what we find (for more on biases: Can Your Kids Avoid Being Fooled?).
Content providers are savvy about exploiting these mental shortcuts so we need to be on our toes. We have all heard stories about websites pretending to be something they’re not–and the new buzzword of “fake news” is everywhere both being used appropriately and used as a political tool against legitimate news. The answer to all this isn’t to demand the government curate the internet for us. All of us need to take some personal responsibility for what we accept as true and to teach our kids how to ask some basic questions about what they find on the internet.
So just how bad is it online for kids? According to a year long Stanford study, 80% of middle schoolers couldn’t tell “sponsored content” from an article on a news site, over 80% of high schoolers accepted the claims of a photograph without any attempt to check for authenticity, and overall kids couldn’t tell fake from real news on social media.
Here are 3 short exercises you can do with your kids that cover some basic principles when presented with something on the internet.
Who Is Doing The Talking?
Even smart people have been fooled by social media accounts that appear to be putting out news report but are actually satire (funny lies). A few years ago, the U.S. Capitol Police investigated a report based on the headline, “Congress Takes Group Of Schoolchildren Hostage.” As obviously ridiculous as it sounds, it was taken seriously. The problem is that the information was taken from a tweet by The Onion who is known for satire.
One of the first things to talk to kids about is how to identify who is talking. This is especially relevant for social media because a person can easily be tricked into thinking that a Twitter account with Beyonce’s picture and named @TheRealBeyonceSrsly is being maintained by the Queen Bey herself when it’s really a 16 year old kid on a smartphone sitting in a Shake Shack.
So here is the first exercise to run through with your kids. How do you tell which of the following accounts is maintained by Donald J. Trump, the 45th President of the United States and not by someone else who may be intentionally trying to confuse people.
For each Twitter profile screenshot, evaluate the following:
- Profile and background photos
- Username or handle
Look for things that don’t fit or are otherwise odd to be used by the President. A photo might look convincing, but is a photo enough evidence that it’s really his Twitter account? How hard is it to copy a professional photograph of a celebrity online? At the same time, if a photo seems to poke fun at the president, that might be a clue that the account is not authentic.
Other tipoffs might are misspellings, nicknames, or intentionally insulting words in the profile description. Does the account have the ‘Verified account’ icon next to the name (a little blue seal with a check mark in the middle)? For Twitter, this is the most important clue for identifying the authenticity of a public figure.
- The background picture is from Home Alone 2. It’s Donald Trump but this seems an odd picture to put on Twitter.
- The handle and description seem to imply parody.
- Not verified.
- Both pictures look believable.
- The name looks ok. The handle looks fine at first glance but on closer inspection there is an ‘n’ instead of an ‘m’.
- The description says flat out that it’s a joke account, but many people don’t read the profile. It’s easy to quickly glance at a convincing picture and assume the account is real.
- Not verified.
- Wait, what? Does this unfortunate man have the same name as Donald Trump?
- Pictures: not even trying.
- He’s ‘@doctorskippy’ in a sports jacket.
- Not sure if he’s pretending to be a doctor or a president.
- Not verified.
- Pictures look fine–complete with large crowd size.
- Name and handle don’t have anything that looks suspicious.
- Profile actually says he’s the president. Of course you can type whatever you want in there. The American flag icon is a nice touch.
- Hey, this one is verified. This is the best piece of evidence that the tweets you read on this account are going to be presidential.
This exercise is pretty straight forward for an adult because really you just look for the verified icon. My kids (especially my 6 and 8 year old) aren’t very familiar with Twitter. Going through these small details helped them understand the bigger picture of knowing who is doing the talking on social media. Now they have better tools to decide if it’s who they think it is, someone impersonating or just a funny account.
Ads On A News Site
Sometimes ads on a webpage are obvious. They can be clearly marked as an ad or just appear like we are used to seeing ads–with product labels prominently displayed and tag lines that try to build trust.
Here is an example of a Geico ad that is typical from Google’s AdSense (Note: This is not a live ad. It’s only a screenshot. But there may also be real live ads that appear elsewhere on this page.) Show this to your kids and help point out how you can tell it’s an ad. Here are a few starting points:
- The top right corner has the standard icons to identify it as a Google Ad Sense ad. You can even dismiss the ad by clicking on the ‘x’.
- The company logo for Geico is obvious along with a button to “Get A Quote.”
- The ad stands out from the rest of the page. It isn’t designed to fit into the overall look and feel of the native content.
- And it has a picture of the Gecko!
News organizations, however, have evolved how they advertise on their pages to use more ‘native advertising.’ The way native advertising works is that it integrates more into the design of the page. Unlike the more traditional Geico ad, it doesn’t stand out and is not labeled explicitly that it is an ad. And on a new sites, native ads are meant to look more like news stories which can create confusion for a reader.
Kids should know that advertisements aren’t something insidious but should understand that companies pay to have their products presented in a favorable light. The differentiation needs to be made clear to kids that a news article attempts to present multiple perspectives on a subject (I realize bias exists in the media but that’s another topic) but an advertisement will present only the good things about a product and probably none of the bad.
From these parts of the Upworthy homepage (a popular news site among millennials), attempt the second exercise to see if you and your kids can evaluate each item (1-5) identified in red and determine if it’s a native ad, a traditional ad or original content of the site. Hints are below the images.
- Not an ad. This is a menu item that links to more pages of content.
- Ad. This is a native advertisement as it looks similar to the menu above it. It is labeled as “Special Partner Series” which implies a paid relationship–“partner” is the key word.
- Ad. It looks like content but has “Partner Story” on the picture and below the headline it says “sponsored by.” Notice the headline is worded similar to a news story.
- Not an ad. This is a news article. There is nothing labeling it as sponsored or a partner article. It also attributes who wrote the story below the headline.
- Ad. This is a traditional ad although doesn’t appear to be a Google Ad Sense ad. It’s traditional because it prominently features a product, has a selling tag line and isn’t trying to blend into the page but rather stand out from it.
Do the same exercise with the CNN Business page. For item 1, there is a list of news headlines. Identify which one is a native advertisement. For item 2, indicate which of the 3 columns are a list of real news stories and which are advertisements. And for item 3, determine which is an ad and which is news content.
- The last one. Clues are “Content by LendingTree.” But notice that the headline could easily be confused as a news story.
- The first column is news content. The second column is all ads. It’s indicated at the very top by “Paid Partner Content” but is far enough away from the multiple headlines below to be confused for news articles. And the third column is a native advertisement. It’s labeled with “Sponsor Content” but is tricky because it has a headline that appears to be news content and under it says “by Morgan Stanley” which appears to attribute it to a writer. Morgan Stanley sounds like a person’s name (it’s a combination of two people’s last names) but in reality is an investment bank who wants to sell you financial services.
- This is a unique example but is really appropriate for a business web page. The column on the left is news content that publishes the daily quotes of specific stocks. To the right it appears to display more market information but is really advertising rates at which Lending Tree is willing to sell home loans.
This exercise was interesting to my kids. They started to feel like detectives in identifying ads and wanted to go see more sites to keep playing. I had to cut it off because one of them starting asking about going on a cruise after seeing a Carnival cruise ship ad.
Key words to look for (because they vary from site to site) are “sponsored”, “promoted”, “paid advertisement”, “content by”, “partner” and probably others which indicate an advertisement.
Native ads proved to be the most confusing to kids in the Stanford study with a staggering 80% of students believing that they were real news content. The report also noted that some students were able to identify a story as sponsored content but still believed that it was a news article. Kids seem to be utterly confused.
Is That Picture Real?
As kids come across information on the internet, they will undoubtedly encounter things that might sound a little too good to be true. Rather than just saying “wow” they should really be curious about where this information came from and what are the facts surrounding it.
The Stanford study presented the following photograph and asked students if it provided strong evidence about the conditions near the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant. Show your kids these flowers and talk about what you know and what you don’t know from this evidence. What supports the claim in the caption? (You might also have to explain the earthquake that damaged the nuclear plant and what radiation can do.)
Questions you might ask:
- Could this photo have been somehow altered? (They might not be aware of Photoshop)
- What is imgur? Can anyone post photos here (the answer is yes)? Or is there any kind of vetting of posts?
- How do I know this picture is taken near Fukushima? Does there appear to be anything in the photo to support it.
- Is there evidence that radiation caused the flowers to grow this way? Or could there be other types of mutations that cause this?
“The photograph had no attribution. There was nothing that indicated that it was from anywhere,” said Sam Wineburg, the lead author of the Stanford study. “They didn’t ask where it came from. They didn’t verify it. They simply accepted the picture as fact,” he said.
Wineburg’s statement gets to the heart of the issue which is that kids aren’t trained to ask the right questions about information they accept as true. This problem cannot be overstated: kids need to be better at scrutinizing information on the internet. And for crying out loud, if kids are going to read some ridiculous tweet on Twitter, shouldn’t they at least know it was the RealDonaldTrump who said it?