Parenting in the age of fake news: 5 things you can start doing today

Fake or real news?

When I was in 7th grade, we did a unit in English class about how to read the newspaper. We learned where the most important stories were placed (to the right) and about how the stories were written so that the most important points were covered first (before the reader lost interest).

They didn’t teach us how to figure out if the stories were true, because back then it just didn’t occur to us that anyone would publish fake news. Now, it happens all the time.

It’s not that there have never been untrue stories published. But with the rise of the Internet, where anybody can post anything — and in an age when, in the race to present new content on a 24/7 news cycle, fact-checking doesn’t always happen — the number of fake stories has skyrocketed.

As if parenting weren’t hard enough these days, parents now have a new task: to teach their children to be savvy consumers of news. This is very important; if the next generation can’t tell fact from fiction when it comes to news, the future of our country and world could be in real jeopardy.

Here are five suggestions for giving children the skills they need to navigate the new reality of news:

Teach them not everything they read or hear is true.

Most of it will be, and you don’t want to turn them into suspicious conspiracy theorists. But it’s important that they get this basic concept—and learn to be thoughtful and careful before making any decisions or assumptions based on a news story.

Teach them to evaluate sources of news.

Which sources—news organizations, people, companies, whatever—are credible? Which might be less credible? How do we decide credibility? This is not a straightforward conversation, and it will be influenced by your own history and beliefs, but it’s an important one to have. You’ll need to talk about motivations and biases, about why people believe and say things. What might be the story behind the story?

Teach them to think about whether a story makes sense.

Doing a bit of a “sniff test” is always a good idea, and yet so often people don’t do it. How likely was it, for example, that Hillary Clinton was really running a child sex ring out of a restaurant? Yet a man brought a gun to the Comet Ping Pong restaurant in Washington D.C. and started shooting based on that fake story. Or what about the news that Bill Murray was running for president? Some stories that don’t seem to make sense end up being true, of course, but that’s not the norm.

Teach them to fact-check a story.

Just as the Internet can bring us fake news, it can help us debunk it. A quick Google check of a story can bring other sources that lend context and give more information. Teach children about “primary sources,” especially when it comes to facts and statistics — direct or firsthand evidence is always going to be more reliable than secondhand evidence or opinion.

Help them be well-informed.

Speaking of facts and statistics…these days, sound bites just aren’t enough — because we can’t always trust the sound bites. We all need to learn more about the world around us if we are going to recognize and fend off fake news. Read newspapers together, listen to the news, watch documentaries, read nonfiction books. Obviously you can’t teach your children everything about everything, but you can teach them to be curious and create a culture of learning within your family.

When you hear about something in the news, research and learn about it together. I know it sounds nerdy, but let’s face it: most of us spend far more time on entertainment media than on educational media. If you learned about one thing as a family every week that would be 52 things you’d all be smarter about by the end of the year.

It’s not a bad New Year’s resolution, actually: to be a bit smarter, and give your children the knowledge and skills they need to build a better, safer future.

Learn more about Adolescent Medicine at Boston Children’s.

Claire McCarthy

About the blogger: Dr. Claire McCarthy is a primary care pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, a senior editor for Harvard Health Publications and an official spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics.