Conspiracy theories — from COVID misinformation to the disputed existence of Helen Keller — abound on the internet, and new research shows it’s teenagers who are the most likely to be framed. Below, experts explain how lack of media literacy has skewed some youth. Sense of Reality” – and what parents can do to distinguish fact from fiction.
What the study says
Published earlier this month by the Center to Combat Digital HateThe study, conducted with the help of polling firm Survation, surveyed more than 1,000 US adults and more than 1,000 American teenagers between the ages of 13 and 17. Participants were presented with eight statements that corresponded to popular conspiracy theories on a range of topics: anti-vaccination, antisemitism, incel ideology, COVID-19, climate denial, the so-called “deep state”, anti-LGBTQ “groomer” myths and the “great replacement”.
While the study found that both groups (68% of adults and 83% of adolescents) agree that the spread of online harm can have real-world impacts, the results also suggest that “conspiracy theories belief in the US -public is alarmingly widespread”. “
What are the key insights?
According to the study, young people are more likely to fall for conspiracy theories. When presented with the eight statements related to conspiracy theories, 60% of 13-17 year olds agreed with four or more, compared to 49% of adults.
The numbers were even higher for teenagers who spend four or more hours a day on a single social media platform; 69% of those with high levels of social media use agreed with four or more conspiracy statements.
For example, 43% of young people agreed that “Jewish people have disproportionately much control over the media, politics and business.” For teens who identified as heavy social media users, that number rose to 54%. A statement consistent with the ‘big replacement’ theory was also supported by 43% of youth overall; For teens who use social media frequently, the number rose to 52%.
What do experts think?
Imran Ahmed, founder and CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate US/UK, says these results should be a wake-up call.
“We usually assume that young people are not as affected by conspiracy theories as older people are. There’s an idea that it’s your crazy older uncle who thinks that sort of thing,” Ahmed tells Yahoo Life. “This shows us that young people are at risk, particularly those who use social media frequently.”
He points to the percentage of teenagers who expressed support for polarizing conspiracy theories.
“When we worry about such issues as climate change, we usually think it’s the children who are going to save us or that we’re doing this for our children,” says Ahmed, “but what we’ve seen from the information here Having is commitment.” really hurt her sense of reality.”
What can parents do?
Parenting and technology expert Devorah Heitner is the author of Screenwise: Helping kids thrive (and survive) in their digital world. and the coming Growing up in the public eye: growing up in a digital world. She says if your teen’s beliefs are influencing their actions, it’s time to intervene. However, she acknowledges that it can be difficult for parents to have this conversation.
“You don’t want to put them down and make them feel stupid because when you … attack a teenager’s perspective, especially as a parent, they double down,” Heitner tells Yahoo Life. “We have all fallen for misinformation. We must come from a very likeable place.”
She suggests that parents help teens dig deeper to learn more about the topic. Research various publications and data, talk to people trained in the field and engage in discussions.
Some red flags: If a teen is spending a lot of time on sites like Reddit or the dark web, or following controversial influencers like Andrew Tate or hate groups, Heitner says parents should talk to someone or get a third party, like a family therapist, involved.
“There are people out there who are targeting teenagers,” says Heitner. “[Teens] will think, “Oh, that’s the stuff grownups haven’t told me.” They realize there’s more to the world, but they need to know that there’s always skepticism when someone in a group of people on the world blames.”
Parents should be careful when their teens say they’re just watching content but not participating in the discussion. This can be a slippery slope.
“Money is still being made because the attention is on it,” notes Heitner. “You do not want to [teens] to get used to such things.”
While she finds the results of the study worrying, Heitner thinks it’s possible that the teenage respondents didn’t fully understand the conspiracy theory statements they agreed with.
“I wish kids could fact check anything they see on TikTok, Twitter or YouTube,” she says. “That’s one of the things we need to work on. Schools need to teach children much more media literacy.”
It might be helpful to encourage youngsters to join the school debate team or take journalism classes, even if they don’t feel like getting into those areas. Heitner says it will teach them questioning and research.
“We need to teach our kids that they have a responsibility not to share something unless they know it’s true,” she says. “We don’t want to reinforce misinformation. We do not want to amplify or spread misinformation.”