Those parents who blame the Internet for the ease of horror on developing minds should know that they’re the primary news source of Junior’s (mis)understanding.
With all the hours your mini-me spends bathed in the all-powerful light of their iDevice, you would be forgiven for thinking you were raising a technological, analytical genius.
No longer bound by the limitations and tribulations of transitioning to a digital age, our newest generation of world leaders has a keen eye for detail, able to discern with ease between what’s hot and what’s not – what’s real and what’s not real.
For cavemen like us, we have had to train ourselves to know that perhaps that link for “super fast, instant downloads” isn’t quite right, and that it may not be the real Prince of Nigeria appearing in your inbox with details of the Western Union transfer you’ve been waiting for.
Children – specifically those between age 10 and 18 – however? Not a problem.
Slap down a story about Obama faking his birth certificate, however, and that discerning ability is all but vacant.
Much as we may hope that at least our littlest humans will be immune from the sludge that is fake news, 31% of them have shared a news story only that they later found out was not quite the truth – and they don’t even have the option of blaming it on their after-work red.
That’s according to research by Common Sense Media, which further adds to your growing insecurities about the future of humanity by telling us that only 44% of youngsters can tell between fake news and the real thing.
The study, titled “News and America’s Kids”, surveyed 853 children, looking at where they got their news, and what their attitude towards that news was.
Only one third said they thought the media treated men and women fairly, and less said people of different races and ethnicities were treated fairly. Just how is it that children know to be skeptical of their news, while simultaneously remaining clueless about whether or not the news they are reading is legitimate?
The study also looked at how media consumption changes from the tweenage (10 to 12) to teenage (13 to 18) years.
If children are reading news that is as fake as fake can be, at least they feel good about it. 70% of participants said that reading the news made them feel smart and knowledgeable.
But that’s not to say our future leaders gleefully chow down on the media buffet before them. Despite the inability to pick out what’s real and what’s not, only a quarter of respondents put “a lot” of trust in the information they’re receiving.
In fact, only one third said they thought the media treated men and women fairly, and less than that said that people of different races and ethnicities were treated fairly.
That leaves us in a bit of a bind: just how is it that children know to be sceptical of their news, while simultaneously remaining clueless about whether or not the news they are reading is legitimate?
Surely all that time spent online has taught them how to dodge communicative land mines, right?
Well, maybe the reason our youngest generation has such a hard time knowing the news they are consuming is false is because they’re getting it from a source that is equally in the dark about its veracity.
No, not Facebook, or Twitter, or whatever it is that the youth are using these days: their parents.
It makes a lot of sense – just like you would probably believe that Sweden is drowning under a wave of Islamic terrorism if you were told this during ABC’s evening bulletin, so too would a child believe it coming out of their parent’s mouth.
Their parent who may not necessarily be blessed in the art of analysis when they are in the depths of their news feed.
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63% of kids got their news from family, friends, or teachers. Online came next at 49% – including 35% from social media alone.
Breaking down further, a majority of children getting news from their family were aged between 10 and 12, with a slim majority of teens getting their news from social media.
So, what does that all mean?
Not a lot, at least at first glance.
Sure, you could brush these findings off as to be expected: pre-teens are simply too young to primarily find their news alone, and they certainly are less likely to be a social media slave-like their older peers.
But it draws attention to a very important role parents play in the raising of their children – particularly while they are young: their role as educators.
While you may be too old and cynical for fake news to have any real impact on your life, your child almost definitely is at risk of much greater impact from misinformation.
Fake news might change who you vote for, but passing that information onto your youngsters means you are raising a child who lacks critical analytical ability, and may potentially ingrain them with bias and prejudice.
Worse still, it could mean your bundles of joy are unable to trust the news as a whole, or easily gullible for potentially harmful information.
There is one easy answer. Educate the educators. Parents need to fact check. Taking 30 seconds to search even just the headline of the article, before sitting Junior down for story time, could make a world of difference to their intellectual upbringing.
This might sound like dog-whistling, or creating an atmosphere of hysteria around what is otherwise a largely unexciting topic but we have already seen what happens when people cannot differentiate between real and fake news, and how dangerous that can be.
In December 2017, a man began shooting in a pizza restaurant in Washington, after reading a story about Hillary Clinton running a sex ring out of it.
Yes, it is an extreme example, but by passing along misinformation to your children, you are potentially planting the same seeds of extreme irrational news consumption.
On a smaller scale, you may prevent them from getting the healthcare they need out of distrust for a legitimate headline piece on a virus, or on food safety issues.
There is, of course, one easy answer to all of this.
Parents need to learn to fact check, to research whatever outrageous claim has got their blood boiling.
Yes, when a news story seems important, it is a good thing to keep your family informed as soon as possible.
But taking 30 seconds to search even just the headline of the article to see if any other outlet has reported on the story, before sitting Junior down for storytime, could make a world of difference to their intellectual upbringing.
No more excuses, no more blaming the evil Internet for its barrage of falsehoods, or excuses about how hard it is to tell that what you are reading is fake – it is time parents started to do their research, for the good of their children.
Fake news may sound like a handy media buzz word, but the effects it can have for someone who has fallen for its bait are very much real.
We may have lost our generation to a life of cynicism and gullibility – it’s not too late to save the next.