Pandemic myths are all over social media—and they’re dangerous for kids

YouTube is cracking down on anti-vax accounts, but misinformation can still creep into teens’ lives. Here’s how parents can help them navigate.

After Stephanie Africk handed her daughter a mask while leaving their Boston home, she was stunned to hear what her 13-year-old had to say: “Masks don’t work, and kids don’t even get COVID.” The position went against science—and everything her family had discussed.

Where’d the teen get this information? Social media. “She got the information—or misinformation—from someone on TikTok who she respects and believes.”

Pandemic misinformation recently prompted YouTube to ban the accounts of several popular anti-vaxxers, as well as other content that promotes false information about vaccines. But it’s not just COVID-19 misinformation that teens can be exposed to on social media. A 2017 report from Common Sense Media—released just after the 2016 election—reported that 31 percent of kids who shared a news story online later discovered it was inaccurate.

Misinformation includes outright falsehoods, like that vaccines contain microchips or that activists started wildfires in Oregon. But it can also be the misinterpretation of facts, like when social media headlines claimed that New York City was banning hot dogs. (The city had actually unveiled a plan to reduce meat spending.)

Misinformation can have a negative effect on people, especially children. But it can also be dangerous. A 2020 joint survey from Harvard, Northwestern, Rutgers, and Northeastern universities found that people under age 25 were more likely to believe in COVID-19 misinformation than older people, regardless of political affiliation. Some teens are refusing to be vaccinated based on false claims they’ve seen on social media.

Some platforms have stepped up. In addition to its anti-vax ban, YouTube announced in August that it would turn off the “Autoplay” function for viewers under 17 after criticism that users were sometimes being pushed toward conspiracy theory videos. In 2019, Instagram announced it would begin working with third-party fact-checkers and label inaccurate posts as false information.

But though TikTok’s community guidelines prohibit content that’s false or misleading, an August report from MediaMatters found that the video-sharing app’s algorithm continues to promote viral videos containing vaccine misinformation.

So how can parents protect teens from untruthfulness on social media platforms and protect them from dangerous misinformation? By helping them become smarter digital citizens. Here’s how.

How misinformation seeps in 

Kids and teens are considered “digital natives” for their ability to adapt to technology like smartphones, apps, and social media platforms. But just because teens have grown up with the internet doesn’t mean they have the cognitive skills to interpret complicated information.

“There’s a misconception that because teenagers are digital natives that they’re better at detecting reliable information online,” says Katy Byron, director of MediaWise, a non-partisan organization that teaches media literacy and fact-checking skills. “But research has shown time and again that teenagers struggle deeply with identifying the facts on the internet.”

Although people of all ages can fall for misinformation, kids might be at a disadvantage—the frontal lobe of the human brain doesn’t fully develop until people are about 25 years old. “This part of the brain manages impulse control, future thinking, and judgment,” says Michael Rich, pediatrician and director of the Digital Wellness Lab. “It’s the air traffic controller of the brain.” Rich adds that young people sometimes aren’t ready to navigate the information on these apps: “It’s like tossing car keys to a toddler.”

Teens also might be absorbing false information simply because of what scientists call the illusory truth effect, which is a tendency to believe false information if you hear it multiple times. (In fact, researchers from Vanderbilt University found that kids as young as five use repetition as a cue for truth.) If, for example, you read that giraffes are marsupials once, you probably won’t believe it. But if you hear that fake fact on TikTok and then read about it on Facebook? You might start to assume it must be true. (We promise it’s not.)

While teens aren’t more prone to the illusory truth effect than adults, they do spend more time on social media apps: A survey of 60,000 families from the parental control app Qustodio found that in March and April 2020, during lockdowns, kids spent an average of 97 minutes a day on YouTube, 95 minutes on TikTok, and 60 minutes on Instagram. A separate study found that in 2020, adults spent 82 minutes a day on social networks.

“I used to just assume that what was being shared on social media, especially if it had a lot of views or a lot of likes, that it was true,” says 17-year-old Angie Li, who fact-checks for the MediaWise Teen Fact-Checking Network. “I’d think, ‘Why would this many people believe something that’s false?’”

How to protect your kids from misinformation 

For many parents, removing access to social media sites like YouTube and TikTok isn’t the best solution. “My children have found some of their passions and interests by way of YouTube and the broader internet,” Africk says. “It’s a difficult tradeoff.” Rather than shunning social media, parents can help build their teens’ digital literacy skills.

Gut check. Encourage your kids to notice their feelings when they see content on social media, says Michael Robb, the head of research at Common Sense Media. “Algorithms often spread things that are either outrage-inducing or things that raise the intensity of emotion,” he says, “because that’s what’s most likely to be shared.”

That doesn’t mean that all anger-inducing content is misinformation, but it’s a good cue to start investigating. To help, parents can encourage teens to check out this chart to internalize how a piece of content made them feel. If the information makes them feel restless and anxious, they should dig deeper to see if the content is really true.

“That’s a signal to pause before clicking the like or share button and think, ‘Wait, let me check if this is accurate and reliable,’” Byron says.

Consider the source. Ask kids to investigate the source of a piece of information. Where did this information first appear? Where is it shared now? Who benefits if you believe the story? Where does the content appear outside of social media? “It seems like a lot of questions, but they can become automatic after a while,” Robb says. (Read this to learn more about helping kids spot fake stories and propaganda.)

Beware of influencers. Researchers from the University of Florida found that when a celebrity endorsed a message in an Instagram post, subjects were more likely to believe it was true. But celebrities and influencers aren’t necessarily experts.

“During the election, we had to fact-check Kanye West. He posted a picture of Kentucky’s electoral system saying he was ahead of both Trump and Biden—that was just completely false,” says Isaac Harte, another member of the MediaWise Teen Fact-Checking Network.

Robb suggests that parents gently remind kids to gather information from a variety of sources, especially credible organizations.

“It’s good to think about news literacy as something that develops over time, experience, and learning,” Robb says. “It's not likely that one conversation on this topic is going to be enough to convince a child to immediately distrust an influencer they feel a connection to, but a parent can at least reinforce some of the news literacy habits we should all be using when encountering information.”

The expert advice for parents in Africk’s situation? Be patient, hear your child out, and keep the conversation going.

Double check. In the olden times (like, five years ago), experts advised looking for misspellings or weird graphics, or to check the “about” page or reference list for sources. Those aren’t bad strategies, but today misinformation can come from sources that seem polished and reliable.

Instead, Byron recommends that kids click to open a few new tabs on their browser and search for the information elsewhere, a process called lateral reading. Do reputable sources have similar information? What do other outlets say about the source in question?

Most important? Tell kids to rely on their brains—not technology. Says Rich: “There isn’t a technology or software that will protect your child like the software that’s between your child’s ears.”

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