Photograph by Image Source / Getty Images
Photograph by Image Source / Getty Images

News can be confusing. Here’s how to teach kids to be expert fact-checkers.

Reliable news and fake stories live together on the internet. These tips can turn children into expert truth-seekers.

With one of the most divisive presidential elections in our nation’s history fast approaching, both campaigns are weaving sharply contrasting stories of America. Sometimes it’s hard to believe they’re even talking about the same country.

On a daily basis, news organizations are calling out facts versus lies told on the campaign trail. And our social media feeds are likely flooded with real news and misinformation that look exactly alike.

So what exactly is the truth? That’s hard for adults to answer—and even harder for kids to understand. An experiment conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that adults believed false “news” reports about 20 percent of the time. And a poll by Common Sense Media found that less than half of kids surveyed said they could tell fake stories from real ones.

It’s challenging for kids to make sense of today’s confusing media environment when adults themselves struggle to understand it. The following tips from the new Nat Geo book Breaking the News offers simple steps kids can follow to tell the difference between authentic news and misinformation. They’ll help encourage children to think independently and become responsible digital citizens—so kids are not only responsible for themselves, but also for what they share with others.

Stop before you click. Studies show that people are much more likely to click on a headline or share a post if it makes them feel happy, angry, or excited. This is especially true among young people, who are some of the most likely to read clickbait. And yet the most provocative headlines often turn out to be the most misleading.

The best advice for kids and adults is that when we feel a strong, knee-jerk reaction, resist the urge to share the post immediately. Stop, breathe, and think about what’s making you feel that way. Is it a shocking headline or image? Does the language make wild statements without any facts to back it up? These are telltale signs that the post may be fake.

And because headlines can be deceiving, kids should remember to read the whole article or post before sharing.

Go to the source. Children might not be glued to the daily news, but they’ve probably absorbed some conflicting information. If your child feels confused—and who wouldn’t?—encourage him to ask the one question that will lead to the truth: What’s the source of the information?

Authentic news will include sources for all information presented. (If anonymous sources are used, the story should explain why the person’s name is withheld.) Explain that a reliable news story will provide sources for different sides of an issue, then work together to identify the sources in the story; looking for names of the people quoted as well as the organizations that provide the facts and figures.

And if sources aren’t provided? That’s a major red flag that the news report isn’t legitimate.

Fact-check suspicious stories. Young people don’t always know not to believe everything they read. Here are a few easy tricks that kids can use to tell if a far-fetched story could be a hoax, a wild conspiracy theory, or misinformation.

  • Do an internet search on the article’s headline or the title of the post to see if the story has already been identified as false. If the story is real, other reliable news organizations will likely have written stories about the same topic.
  • If the post includes a photo, check for signs that the photo could be a fake: Is the image blurry in places? Are any of the shadows out of place? Do you see duplicated images in the background, or does it look like different images have been pasted together? Kids can also do an online image search to see if the photo has been identified as fake.
  • If the post includes a video, search on the title of the video to see who created it. Does the person seem legitimate?
  • If the story comes from an organization or a famous person’s social media account, make sure the account is real. For example, Facebook and Twitter put blue check marks next to the verified accounts of well-known people.
  • Check the date of the story. If it isn’t recent, the information could be outdated.
  • In all cases, go back to the original question: What’s the source of this information?
  • And most important, if something seems too crazy to be true, or it just feels wrong, don’t share it.

Know how to spot propaganda. Throughout history, propaganda has followed a tried-and-true formula that’s surprisingly simple yet remarkably effective—and at times, very destructive. See if your child can identify any of these common propaganda techniques used by people or organizations covered in the news.

  • Playing to people’s emotions—such as their hopes, fears, anger, or sympathy—rather than relying on fact
  • Sticking to simple messages and catchy slogans
  • Speaking to a specific audience. Politicians craft their messages to appeal to the people whose support they want to win.
  • Blaming someone else for problems. One of the most harmful forms of propaganda is when people scapegoat other individuals or groups—often people of color or immigrants—blaming them for society’s problems. This stirs up voter’s fears, spreads racism, and can put members of those groups in danger. But scapegoating can be an effective way to get people to rally behind a candidate.
  • Repeat, repeat, repeat. The more people hear these messages, the more likely they are to believe them.

Fess up if you make a mistake. One survey found that about a third of kids who shared a story later found out it was fake or inaccurate. If your child accidentally shares a false story, he doesn’t need to be embarrassed. After all, adults (and maybe you) have done this, too! But the responsible action is to try to stop the spread of false information by posting a note that explains that the post turned out to be fake. Your child can also encourage his friends to do the same if they’ve shared it with others.

ROBIN TERRY BROWN is the author of Breaking the News: What’s Real, What’s Not, and Why the Difference Matters. After a 17-year career as a senior editor with National Geographic, Terry Brown now works as a writer, editor, and truth-seeker.