| Education

The dangers of hoaxes and how to help your children recognise them

| 12 Sep 2022

Hoaxes and fake news are on the rise. Learn how to help your children spot them.

A hoax is a false and fabricated story, but one which claims to be true. Sometimes it’s a harmless prank, but other times it can lead to serious consequences that might damage somebody’s life or health. For instance, this could happen if a story claimed that something like a certain food cured cancer when it had no such effects.

Even educated adults sometimes struggle to spot hoaxes and fake news. So how can we expect our kids to do it?

Back in the day, your grandparents might have unknowingly spread fake stories or urban legends about some family member’s adventures and experiences. There was no way to check grandpa’s war, hunting or fishing tales. But most of these stories would have stayed only within your family.

With hoaxes and fake news a common issue worldwide, combined with the rise of social media, misleading information can now go viral instantly. See, for instance, the momo or Blue Whale challenges that frightened parents around the globe. The latter started in Russia and went truly global.

Why do hoaxes and fake news exist?

There are several reasons why hoaxes and fake stories exist. The less harmful ones can start as a joke; the internet gives them more life. The goal of the more elaborate ones is to make money. If you share a fake news website, the owner can make money from online ads or products that claim to offer magic results. Other hoaxes seek to advance a political agenda while masquerading as impartial news. 

There’s plenty of misleading material online. Liking, sharing, or retweeting such content only helps to amplify it.

People with less experience with the internet – like children – might have a more difficult time spotting hoaxes and fake news. There is no reason not to talk about this topic with your children. Don’t wait for another hoax to spread before you warn your family; your children might become a victim of it before you realise.

So how do you help them? The advice offered in the list below won’t catch every hoax, but it will provide plenty of warning that you might be dealing with one.

1. Help your kids to check the source

Look at who has shared and published a story. How is the story written? Is the language sensational or full of loaded terms trying to create an emotional response? Creators of these stories use certain words to evoke feelings like shock, terror, or sorrow - this encourages the reader to switch off the rational part of their brain and act without thinking.

Remind your children to always ask for evidence. And keep in mind that even serious media outlets can sometimes publish incorrect information. Teach your family to ask for numbers, studies and information that can substantiate why a claim is true. 

2. Examine the evidence

Most shared hoaxes and fake news always include visual “proof,” like a photo or a video. Show your kids how to zoom into an image and look for visual clues like street or shop signs, car license plates or billboards. If a viral story claims to be from Israel, but the street signs are in Spanish, it’s probably fake. 

Another great tool is reverse image searching. There are several search engines, including Google, and dedicated websites where you simply upload or paste a link to an image, and the result shows you where the picture has been used. Sometimes the result will lead you directly to a website that collects information on hoaxes and fake news. Simply look for “reverse image search” online to get started.

3. Tune your scepticism antenna

Most parents want their kids to behave well and to do what they or other responsible adults say. But before you allow your kids to use the internet and social media, you should teach them to exercise a healthy level of scepticism. Emphasise that not everything an adult, family member or friend has shared on the internet is automatically true. 

There are many accounts on social media that specialise in sharing hoaxes and fake news. These can be bots, operated automatically by algorithms. Show your children how to spot them. They use the same sensational and loaded language as fake news websites and typically share many of the same posts simultaneously throughout the day. Illustrate this to your kids by showing them the timelines of some suspicious social media accounts.

4. Practice what you preach

As with everything, children tend to mirror their parents’ behaviour. If you don’t want your kids to believe in hoaxes, or share them, do not share them yourself – at home or on the internet. If you have done so by accident, explain to them that it was a mistake, why it was a hoax and why you fell for it. With open communication, you can help your children learn from the good and bad examples of the adults around them, including you!


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