A New Front In The War Against Fake News: Kids

Through careful instruction, young people can become more media literate. The key is focusing on the way in which kids learn to become robust critical thinkers. Photocredit: GettyGETTY

Can children identify fake news? A growing number of organizations believe that the answer is a resounding yes.

The most recent addition to the field is a free online game called NewsFeed Defenders, which helps train students to spot disinformation online. ICivics, an education nonprofit founded by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, co-created the program along with the Annenberg Public Policy Center. I recently tried the game with my eight-year-old daughter, Daphné, and found it a useful exercise, although not for the reasons I’d anticipated. 

Sitting side-by-side on a Saturday afternoon, Daphné and I clicked on the link for NewsFeed Defenders, which, via a fictional social media site, challenges players to navigate “viral deceptions” of all kinds. We waited a minute or two for the program to load. Once it was up on the screen, Daphné seemed thrilled to choose her own avatar—one of six, all looking like young adults—while the soundtrack provided anticipatory excitement. Reading through the rules with me, Daphné asked about certain words, like “accuracy,” “impartiality” and “focus.” The game, during those first few minutes, had her full attention, and she seemed to be learning some important initial lessons about identifying what’s true and what’s not on social media. 

ICivics is not the only nonprofit offering instruction about fake news — more broadly known as “media literacy.” As disinformation aggregators ramp up their output, nonprofits and other organizations have been producing tools to help students spot fake news. 

One resource is the News Literacy Project, or NLP. Founded by Alan Miller, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist, it offers more than a dozen lessons in how to best make use of the media. The organization also has an e-learning platform, Checkology, which is a virtual “news literacy” classroom featuring instructors who are working journalists. 

Most of the digital literacy resources are for middle- and high-school students. The assumption, it seems, is that older children are better equipped to grapple with fake news. This certainly fits with a finding in a survey recently conducted by the Reboot Foundation, where I’m the executive director. In the study, we found that half of the respondents believe that children 12 and under should not even be taught critical thinking skills. 

But kids as young as three are capable of casual reasoning, and researchers now believe that very young children can improve their critical thinking skills. So I was excited to investigate NewsFeed Defenders with Daphné. 

But as we jumped into the game, and time wore on, she pretty quickly lost interest. Not me, though. I learned a thing or two. For one, the program reminded me that social media is multi-layered — you have to continually check sources of posts (reliable news site? blogger? PR firm?) to determine whether they’re legitimate. The game forces you to do just that, or you don’t score well on its “integrity,” “traffic”and “focus” meters.  Over time, I was able to advance from “member” to “curator” status, but I found it more and more difficult to increase the traffic on my site in the game. This made me realize — not for the first time — that integrity does not always lead to popularity. 

Later, discussing the experience with Daphné, I learned something else. She said, “Mom, don’t you realize this game is not very good for critical thinking?” “Why?” I asked. “It shouldn’t be on a screen but something we print out. We need to practice how to write, not to look at the screen.”

I didn’t stop her there. I’ve learned, personally and through research, that it is best to let a young child reason her way to conclusions, even if they’re not fact-based. “I thought this was about helping us find tricks,” Daphné added. “A paper version would have given us more time to think and be more patient.”  I smiled. To a degree, Daphné was echoing the reasoning of her father, who believes that people learn more when they use pen and paper. But more than that, I realized that the game was simply not appropriate for someone her age. 

It wasn’t her fault, or iCivics’, seeing as the game’s creators intended it primarily for high-schoolers on up, and in the end, the program seems to be a useful tool for those age groups, helping them understand how to engage thoughtfully with online media. Young students, however, need to be introduced to media literacy a little differently. A number of researchers now believe that the learning of critical thinking is age-specific, something that depends on the reasoning ability of the child. And there are effective tools to help younger children uncover fake news. For instance, a younger child might use a checklist to figure out if they have come across a bit of disinformation. 

As for Daphné, she did end up doing her own critical thinking, by saying of NewsFeed Defenders, “Maybe this is better for 10-to-15-year-olds. Did you see how light and difficult to read the screen was?” 

So, yes, children can be taught how to spot fake news. Through careful instruction, young people can become more media literate. The key is focusing on the way in which kids learn to become robust critical thinkers.

I founded the Reboot Foundation, an organization that aims to better integrate critical thinking into the daily lives of people around the world. The foundation conducts surveys and opinion polls, leads its own research, and supports the work of university-affiliated scholar…

“This article first appeared on the website of FORBES.“

Helen Lee Bouygues is the president of the Reboot Foundation and author of a forthcoming book on critical thinking.

Newsletter Subscription

Subscribe to our newsletter and stay updated on the latest research an information about critical thinking!