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Poisoned Minds: Understanding the Dangers of Online Misinformation for Kids

In the so-called Information Age, it's crucial for parents to understand the prevalence and impact of online misinformation and disinformation on children. Misinformation is false or misleading information shared without harmful intent, whereas disinformation is deliberately created and distributed to deceive or harm​​​​. These deceptions can range from simple naivete to dangerous conspiracy theories that can have serious impacts on adult beliefs and behavior, let alone that of children and adolescents.


Here’s what you need to know — and teach your child — about the claims they encounter online.


Where Your Child Is Likely to Find Misinformation and Disinformation


Children and teens are increasingly turning to online sources, including social media and news websites, for their information. More than half of teens report getting their news from social media sites and YouTube, with a preference for visual sources of information like videos and images. This shift away from family, educators, and traditional media to online platforms for news increases the impact of algorithms in shaping kids’ understanding of the world​​.


Social media, personalized news feeds, and algorithms play outsized roles in spreading misleading claims and outright untruths. That’s because they often prioritize sensational content over factual data to​​​​​​​​ keep users engaged on a given platform. This environment can be especially harmful to kids and teens, who haven’t fully developed the analytical skills needed to distinguish between reliable and unreliable sources. They may not only absorb false claims, but act on them and contribute to the spread of misinformation online among their peers​​​​.


The Dangers of Misinformation and Disinformation for Kids


The harmful impacts of mis- and disinformation for kids are manifold. First, in recent years, the process of digesting even truthful news headlines has been linked to issues of anxiety, self-esteem, and distorted worldviews among children​​.


When young people absorb “fake news,” they may use it to incite violence, target members of marginalized communities, discourage child COVID vaccinations, undermine public credibility in journalism and science, and much, much more. “Alternative facts” often spread on social media platforms more rapidly and widely than accurate ones, causing confusion and promoting harmful narratives​​. 


These can become part of a young person’s core beliefs, effectively poisoning them not only against the value of critical analysis and verifying claims, but proper civic engagement and responsibility as a whole.


What Parents Can Do


In today’s digital age, part of good parenting means ensuring that kids are exposed only to age-appropriate online platforms, that their screen time is balanced with other activities, and that they understand the importance of good digital citizenship. You can also ask your child’s teachers or school administrators about scheduling expert guest speaker assemblies that offer updated guidance on a variety of internet safety topics.


Teach Kids About Online Mis- and Disinformation With Net Positive


The mission of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Utah County is to inspire and enable all young people, especially those who need us most, to realize their full potential as productive, caring, and responsible citizens and leaders. We accomplish this by providing evidence-based programs with a focus on those that improve academic engagement, build character, and promote healthy behaviors.


Our Net Positive Program educates K-12 students about digital safety, health, citizenship, and leadership. After participating in our program, students are 97% better prepared to face internet dangers. Contact us to learn more and ask your school to schedule a Net Positive Presentation today!


References


Luscombe, B. (2017, March 8). More than half of American kids say they can’t spot fake news. Time. https://time.com/4694165/more-than-half-of-kids-say-they-cant-spot-fake-news/



The Digital Wellness Lab. (2022, August 9). Parent’s Guide to Disinformation and Misinformation Online. https://digitalwellnesslab.org/guides/parents-guide-to-disinformation-and-misinformation-online/


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