Beating fake news scourge: What you need to know to protect your children — Balvinder Sandhu

FEBRUARY 5 — Between the emergence of click bait and the popularity of fake news, it is hard to trust much of what we read online. Some outlets dabble in fake news to catch readers’ eyes and get more clicks, while others have more sinister intentions. Whether it is deliberate misinformation or outright propaganda, the existence of fake news has added another conundrum to 21st century living.

Adults are often caught in this web of false or sensationalised stories. But when it comes to children, the damage could be even worse, as it could affect the way they perceive the world.

Lia Testa Teismann, head of secondary courses at the British Council in Singapore, explained how fake news can affect children’s memories and their trust in themselves. Competent readers naturally check what they are reading with what they already know, and if these facts do not align, they know to raise questions.

However, children do not often have the confidence or experience to consider what they have read on so-called news site with their existing knowledge. She cited research that said an alarming 20 per cent of children between the ages of eight and 15 believe everything they read online is true.

“Fake news distorts their developing sense of right and wrong by normalising behaviour that they likely see as radical or inappropriate,” said Teismann.

“Children must be taught these concepts of right from wrong, rule of law, and ethics and morality but the prevalence of fake news, which often expounds ideas of racism, inequality, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia, gives children equal ‘listening time’ to concepts that are not socially acceptable. Too much exposure can negatively affect how they see the world, how they view others, and their own place in society.”

One of the best ways for both adults and children to discern between real and fake news is to use their critical thinking skills. But while most adults possess this, it is a different story altogether when it comes to children.

“In a world where children aged five to 16 years old are spending, on average, more than six hours of screen time a day, they are inundated by information,” said Ms Teismann. “This information is often unverified or biased, attempting to influence their habits or colour their views. Without critical thinking, children will be robots to the data that reaches them.”

Importance of reading

One of the best ways to nurture critical thinking skills is through reading. It teaches children to understand the content and decipher its meaning, amongst other skills.

Strategies such as reading varied texts for different purposes and from multiple perspectives, learning to infer information or the author’s purpose, and identifying how language structures and presentation contribute to meaning are taught in good reading courses and are necessary for strong critical thinking ability, said Teismann. This has different effects across age groups.

“For early and primary readers, learning the basics of how to understand a story (ie. reading comprehension) is crucial for the development of critical literacy,” she said. “Children must accurately understand and interpret information by making connections between the text and the information they already possess. They must be able to differentiate fact from fiction.

“As students reach the secondary level, these critical thinking skills are further honed, and they begin to evaluate the validity of texts,” she added. “They learn to trust statements that are supported by evidence and to identify bias or misuse of evidence.

“The transferability of these reading skills to critical thinking ability cannot be overstated.”

Parents also have a part to play in helping children to realise what is real and what is not. Since children implicitly trust their parents and subconsciously model their behaviour after them, it is important for parents to ensure that children question what they read. A good start for parents is to educate themselves and lead by example.

“Be approachable and interested when they talk about the news,” Teismann suggested. “Or initiate a conversation with them! According to a report done by Britain’s communications regulator, OfCom, 96 per cent of 12 to 15 year olds are interested in the news, and nearly two-thirds of these children trust their parents to know which is fake and which is real.”

Check your sources

Parents should also use what they read and watch. If something sounds strange or far-fetched, bring it to the attention of your pre-teen or teenaged child, and start a discussion.

Teismann proposed checking the credibility of the source, the author and the story, and to check the date. Can you find a similar story in another reputable newspaper or TV/radio channel? Ask your child what he thinks of the story, and if he is forming a judgment based on the facts, or if his emotions are also getting involved.

Parents can also look for resources available to them. For example, the National Library’s Sure (Source, Understand, Research, Evaluate) programme promotes information literacy and helps children to remember steps to verify the reliability of news they read.

“Parents need to help raise awareness and educate their children to differentiate between real and fake news,” said Mrs Wai Yin Pryke, the director of the National Library.

“There are some simple steps parents can take: For example, for young children who are attracted by visual messages, it’s important to point out when a photo has been manipulated. They can also encourage children to ask questions about what they read or hear, especially if it appears too good to be true.

“Libraries play a vital role in helping us to be consumers and producers of critical and reflective information. NLB’s Sure programme aims to make everyone discerning about the information he receives, and to think before sharing,” she added. — TODAY

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

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