Member profile: Kids and fake news

November 2017


The rise of ‘fake news’ might seem like old news to adults, but what about its effect on children? We spoke to UniSuper member Dr Joanne Orlando, researcher at Western Sydney University and expert in the field of children and technology, to find out more.

The term ‘fake news’ gets thrown around a lot nowadays and seems able to be applied to almost any type of content or situation. How would you define it?

There are three types of fake news:

  1. Information or images that exaggerate the truth—based on correct information but presented in a distorted or exaggerated way.
  2. Wrong information or images—they intentionally provide incorrect information and aim to mislead.
  3. Information or images that look like news but are actually ads— they look factual, but are actually sponsored content and aim to promote a product, event or viewpoint.

What are a couple of easy ways we can teach kids to spot fake news?

Play ‘spot the difference’ games with kids. Pick a random online post and look for these common features of fake news:

  • Is the URL or site name unusual? e.g., those with a “.co” are often trying to masquerade as real news sites.
  • Does the post make bold claims with no evidence?
  • Does the post use sensationalist imagery? E.g. women in sexy clothing are popular clickbait for unreliable content.
  • Does the post make you feel shocked, angry or overjoyed? Fake news often strives to provoke a reaction. If you’re having an intense emotional response then it could be a clue that the report isn’t balanced or accurate.
  • Is the post is poorly written? Fake news often has spelling mistakes and bad grammar.

Find an online post that you consider to be fake news and talk to your child about it. Discuss the following:

  • Who made this post?
  • Who do they want to view it?
  • Who benefits from this post and/or who might be harmed by it?
  • Has any information been left out of the post that might be important?
  • Is a reliable source (like a mainstream news outlet) reporting the same news? If they’re not, it doesn’t mean that it’s not true, but it does mean you should dig deeper.

Can fake news be damaging to kids? Are there key things parents need to be aware of?

While fake news now seems to be part of life, it can be damaging for kids. Social media provides a platform for anyone—no matter what their message is. So fake news has the power to normalise prejudices, dictate ‘us-versus-them’ mentalities and even—in extreme cases—to justify and normalise violence.

The subtle advertising techniques also skew our understanding of what is information and what is advertising. A new part of our role as parents is helping our child to distinguish between what’s trustworthy information online and what’s trying to scam us.

Just on parents—we hear a lot about ‘echo chambers’ in relation to social media algorithms presenting us with information tailored to our existing beliefs, preferences and so on. Is this narrowing or ‘curating’ of content a form of fake news, and does it worry you?

Narrowing or ‘curating’ of content enhances the impact fake news can have on a child or adult. For example, a 16-year old boy I recently interviewed in my research showed me an online video he’d been watching of a road rage incident. This video (and the playlist that followed it) implied that road rage and violence is a normal part of life. Personalisation of content would mean that this boy’s future video suggestions will be of similar themes, and possibly more aggressive acts. If he keeps watching the suggested videos and doesn’t talk about them with anyone or ask for others’ opinions on it, then his ideas may be skewed to thinking that aggressive behaviour such as that depicted in the videos is normal and OK.

You’ve mentioned research published in 2016 by Stanford University which essentially found that 80% of kids were unable to tell the difference between an ad and a news story. Is there any research on the ability of adults to make the same distinction?

Fake news is new in terms of research. My own research involves talking to parents who often tell me they know very little about fake news themselves. The difference with adults is that they have the life-skills to help them be more savvy about online content. Creating fake news, however, is becoming a very subtle art-form, so detecting it isn’t always easy—even for adults.

Are there efforts within primary and secondary education aimed at addressing the problem and impacts of fake news?

Critical literacy is a part of the English curriculum. It aims to teach students to ‘read between the lines’ to get a deeper understanding of the purpose of the writer. This is key to detecting fake news but much more focus is needed on it. I think it’s a new basic skill children now need and one we should emphasise more.

Among other things, your work aims to ensure that technology is an empowering part of children’s lives. What are your top recommendations?

Create a positive and open attitude to technology at home and talk with your children about it. This could simply be sharing something funny you saw online that day. This has the benefit of helping parents to understand their child as a technology user and how it changes over time. This will help parent make informed decisions about guiding their child’s technology use.

Be careful of taking children’s phones away from them as a go-to punishment for a behaviour that is unrelated to technology. My research shows that if this consistently happens, children will share less and less about their day with their parents for fear of having their phones taken away. While it’s important that we manage and guide our children’s behaviour, it’s also important that they come and talk to us about issues that are of concern to them.

And last but not least… what does your ideal retirement look like?

I love learning and new experiences, so travel will always be a big part of my life—well into retirement.  I’m also saving my first novel for retirement. I plan to write it from the little office I’ll set up in Lake Como, Italy. Espresso by my side, plus time for kids and grandkids—to me that is the perfect retirement!

Interested in reading more from Dr Orlando on children and technology?