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There’s nothing new about not being able to fully trust everything you read, see, or hear. But with huge amounts of information coming to our phones, tablets, laptops, and TVs faster than ever—and with technology making it easier for almost anyone to claim to be an expert on any subject—it’s become trickier to sort fact from fiction. On top of that, many people with busy lifestyles simply don’t take the time to stop and consider whether what they’re hearing is real or if it’s just what some call “fake news.” And although the presence of fake news is upsetting to many adults, it can be flat-out confusing for children.
“Your girl is almost definitely hearing about fake news—be it through adult conversations, on TV, or even just from her peers at school, and most likely she doesn’t understand what it means,” says Girl Scouts’ developmental psychologist Dr. Andrea Bastiani Archibald. “On one hand, she’s being told by the caring adults in her life that it’s wrong to fib or tell lies, but on the other hand, there’s been a lot of talk about powerful people twisting the truth or dismissing facts they don’t like as fake news. It’s really hard for anyone, let alone a child, to make sense of this.” More than that, it creates confusion about who your daughter can trust, which can lead to feelings of anxiety.
Helping your girl understand what’s going on—and discussing why it’s important to think about the information we’re told instead of just accepting it as fact—can give her some peace of mind and empower her to be a truth finder in this fake news world. Here’s how to build her critical-thinking skills and help her make sense of all the confusion.
1. Make sure she knows what fake news is and what it isn’t
Fake news is, in short, a fib or an exaggeration made to look like the truth. If your daughter is fairly young, you can compare fake news to information she might hear on the playground about another student. Perhaps she heard that a classmate is on vacation in an exciting place, when in fact that classmate is just out sick with a cold. That would be fake news!
What isn’t fake news? Anything that is actually true, even if it’s something you don’t like or that you disagree with. Facts are based on evidence—something you can prove—not on feelings, opinions, or guesses. Crazy but true? News that your girl doesn’t like is often the most useful kind, because it can help her see problems and start thinking about how she could make a difference and create change. Learning and talking about what’s going wrong is often just as important as discussing what’s going right.
2. Urge her to slow down, think, process, and question
Among all the helpful information your girl is learning about her world are some sneaky bits of fake news designed to mislead her and others. But how can she tell which is which? The best weapon against fake news is her brain—she just has to practice using it! When she learns new information (from anyone or anywhere) all she has to do is ask herself two questions: “Is this real?” and “How do I know?” It’s important to note that asking for more information isn’t rude or disrespectful, it actually shows that she’s paying attention and curious to learn more.
3. Help her think about the source
What does she know about the person or organization making the claim? If it’s a media company or online news source, has she ever heard of it before? If it’s a person she knows, a celebrity, or a public figure, are they known for being honest and fair—or do they have a track record of sometimes telling fibs or exaggerating facts? What makes them an expert on this subject? Why would they know better than someone else?
Help her think about why a person or organization might want to tell a story in a different way, highlight certain parts of a story, or even leave some parts out. Sometimes people say things that aren’t true to get attention, to make themselves or someone they care about look better than they really are, or to hurt someone else. That’s dishonest and not OK. Ask her if she’s ever heard a classmate explain something that happened on the playground in a different way than it really did. Does she think they changed the story a little (or a lot!) to protect themselves so they wouldn’t get in trouble or to protect a friend? Sometimes grownups do that, too.
4. Teach her to play detective
Next, have her look for evidence to back up what she’s hearing. How did the person telling her this information learn about it in the first place? How is the information being explained? Are there photos or videos that support what she’s hearing about or reading? If yes, is there anything in those photos that doesn’t look right to her or that seems like it could have been changed in some way?
If your girl hears a claim like “most people eat pickles,” she should ask whether there was a poll or survey to find out how many people really eat pickles, or was the person who told her this just guessing? If there was a poll, who answered the questions? If the only people who were asked about pickles were already attending a pickle festival, the results might not be very accurate!
5. Ask, who else might know about this?
If she’s still not sure whether she’s dealing with fake news or the truth, have her look to others for help. Ask her to check and see if other reliable and trustworthy sources—like major media outlets or experts on the subject—are saying the same thing. Having conversations with an adult she trusts (for instance, you, a teacher, or her Girl Scout troop leader) about the new information and what she’s learned through her own fact finding can help, too.
Developing critical-thinking skills (like the ones she can use to spot fake news) will help your daughter navigate her world, identify problems, and find solutions that lead to positive change. But beyond that, these skills help her become an independent young woman who can think on her own with confidence—and that’s definitely not fake news!