Fake or Real News?
How to Know the Difference.

It’s Summer! This means more play time and sometimes more time for kids to explore the digital world and internet. But that comes with an obvious downside – there is a lot of wacky stuff out there.

With many urban legends and fake news circling around, figuring out what is real is tricky business. Building kids into good digital citizens who can spot a forgery or hoax at first sight isn’t always straightforward or easy, especially when adults don’t even get it right all the time.

For example, Snopes has debunked some urban legends popular with kids, parents and teachers this year: fidget spinners do not contain deadly levels of lead (yay!), the Simpsons are not in the habit of predicting the future (bummer), and the nursery rhyme Ring Around the Rosie isn’t about the bubonic plague (John Lennon can tell you more).  These stories were all spread via the Internet and are good reminders of how easy it is to view something seemingly plausible as fact when it actually isn’t.

Luckily, there are websites out there that can help. Commonsensemedia.org has an instructive set of steps to follow when deciding if something is true and Connect Safely published its Parent and Educator Guide to Media Literacy & Fake News this May. But fine-tuning a nose for news that ferrets out fraud can be a lengthy and complicated process, and requires more than just talk about media literacy. Critical thinking skills and emotional intelligence are also necessary to interpret what we see, hear, and read.

One way to build these skills is to practice recognizing the role emotions play in our reactions to written headlines, spoken words and visual images. There are a variety of real world family activities perfect for summer that can help develop this sort of flexible thinking useful for online time (or any time).

  • Play the Ad Game: Advertisers knows that emotional connection drives sales, and educating kids about how they are the targets of product marketing is important. This informative blog post directly from the source (it’s branded and functions as an ad for the site’s service) recommends parents make a game out of ads and commercials. Ask questions like “Who created this?” and “What are they telling us?” to help kids understand the motivation behind marketing.
  • Get the Big Picture: Journalists know that sensationalized news draws eyeballs and kids need to know that, too. Visit exhibits that focus on how art and documentaries elicit emotions from viewers. The Oakland Museum of California’s Politics of Seeing show illustrates how Dorthea Lange’s photographs prompted feelings of empathy and compassion that affected public opinion and inspired action.
  • Find the Magic: Practice making and looking at optical illusions. It’s valuable to be comfortable with the idea that what you see isn’t always what you get. The Exploratorium has a webpage with projects to investigate and some of the best examples can be found in person at the museum itself. Afterward, rest your eyes for a while and unwind at the Tactile Dome.

Online or off, in the dark or in the light, critical thinking and emotional intelligence are skills that will help kids go far.  Practice up this summer and maybe next time Stanford runs a study on youth media awareness, they won’t find that 80% of them are duped.