Helping kids authenticate information online

Andrea Tomkins“A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.”

This quotation is usually attributed to Mark Twain but I just learned that the credit actually belongs to someone else.  According to Fred R. Shapiro, the editor of The Yale Book of Quotations, it was C. H. Spurgeon, who, in 1859, wrote: “A lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on.”
But the gist of this quote goes back even further.

“An earlier version appears in the Portland (Me.) Gazette, Sept. 5, 1820: “Falsehood will fly from Maine to Georgia, while truth is pulling her boots on.” Still earlier, Jonathan Swift wrote in The Examiner, Nov. 9, 1710: “Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it.”” (From here.)

It’s an old quote, but the kernel of it remains true: information travels, but misinformation travels even faster. 

Over this past year both of my kids have been spending more time than ever using two social media channels: Facebook and Instagram. I use them too, but as a parent it’s been particularly interesting to see how they have become part of the family conversation. The word Facebook, for example, which wasn’t even part of our family repertoire not that long ago, suddenly gets mentioned a dozen times a day. It usually comes up like this:

“You won’t believe what I saw on Facebook today!”

Sometimes they’ll tell me about something that sounds crazy/outrageous/scientifically inaccurate which I immediately follow up by asking them if this factoid or conspiracy theory arrived in the form of an email chain letter. It usually has.

We are the kind of family who listens to the news on the radio and talks freely about current events but it’s become clear that this is how my kids are getting their information about the world. It is mildly alarming.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard myself saying the following:

  • Your dog is not going to die if you don’t forward that email to twenty friends.
  • If it’s on the Internet it doesn’t mean that it’s true.
  • All images – and even video – can be altered.
  • You must verify before you share. (And not just online. This applies to face-to-face conversations as well.)

We live in the Wild West when it comes to publishing information online.  Anyone with a keyboard and an Internet connection can write and share anything they like. And they do.

So the questions remain: How should we teach our kids how to verify what they’re reading is true? What kind of online sources can be trusted?

The most important skill we can teach kids is to be skeptical of online information: when in doubt, doubt, and if it sounds too good to be true – it probably isn’t. 
There are some fabulous tips about authenticating information right here. It’s mostly geared towards kids in regards to homework (I’m totally filing this away!), but I there are some gems in there that can be easily applied to chain letters and the social media morsels that end up in our news feeds.