Tech talk: teaching kids about hoaxes online

Tech talk: teaching kids about hoaxes online

This weekend, I checked Facebook and gasped at one of the status updates from a friend. It was a link saying that 17 people had been killed in a roller coaster accidence at Universal Studios in Florida. My husband asked what was wrong, and I told him.

We talked about it briefly and I went to a news website. Nothing. Hmm …  Was my friend just really on top of things? A few more websites, nothing. No other mention by others in my news feed. I started to get suspicious. (Yes, I know I should’ve been suspicious sooner, but we’ll get to that.)

A quick Google search turned up numerous articles about the Universal Studios roller coast hoax on Facebook that apparently dates back several months. My friends are either not very gullible or slow.  I am apparently both.

So yeah, I fell for the hoax, albeit only for a few minutes. I’m going to guess I wasn’t the only one who fell for it. And I’m sure I’ll fall for something else in the future.

Even the national news gets taken on occasion, as evidenced by the wolf roaming the athletes’ dorm at the Sochi, Olympics, which turned out to be a Jimmy Kimmel prank. And the Manti Te’o dead girlfriend who never exited catfish situation at Notre Dame shows that these things can take on a life of their own.

But it’s a great teachable moment about not believing everything they read or see, especially on the internet  There are scams, pranks, hoaxes, all kinds of things out there that just aren’t true. Teaching kids to be skeptical and not believe everything they read is a lesson that’s needed for kids to be digitally literate.

Here are 3 things parents can do to make sure their kids don’t fall for the many hoaxes, pranks and scams out there online and in person.

1. Make kids aware that hoaxes are out there. 

Children are new to both the world and the ‘net. They’re also very trusting. That can make for a dangerous combo, so make them aware of what a hoax is and that hoaxes are pretty common, especially online. Tell them to be wary of what they are reading, and even more so before clicking.

Start the conversation talking about a recent hoax like the wolves in Sochi one, or me. Yes, I’m here for you. Tell them you were reading this piece online about a woman who totally fell for the Universal Studios hoax and was beside herself for five minutes of her life that she’ll never get back. Please, use me and my gullibleness as a way to raise the topic. Mock me  if it helps, just get the conversation out there. (Happy to help!)

2. Use the common sense test.

Remind kids that if a story sounds too good to be true, it likely is. And if it sounds really crazy, be skeptical. Also, remind them of the wonders of Photoshop and that pictures are often altered.

This lesson is tough for tweens and teens, who are very ready to believe, whether it’s a rumor they heard from their locker neighbor or something posted online. I’m not saying you want to make them skeptical of everything, but the common sense test reminds them to think, which is not always a given for this age group.

3. Teach kids to verify.

Talk about evaluating the source of both the story itself and the sources the author cites, if any, as well as timeliness. Check other sites. When sites like and failed to have anything about the roller coaster accident, I figured something was up. The mainstream media has been tricked, too, but it’s generally a good way to start.

My Google search turned up an article on Snopes, a great website for identifying scams and getting to the truth behind things. It’s worth checking.

Keep the lines of communication open. Tell your kids that they can come to you if they’re ever unsure about something they see, read or hear, be it online or elsewhere and you can help them verify.

These three steps just scratch the surface. There are a lot of other steps parents and educators a like can take in helping kids evaluate a source of information, but the tween/teen attention span is short. Consider this a brief introduction to critical thinking that they have a lifetime to refine. At least, that’s what I’m telling myself after feeling very silly for falling for a hoax this weekend.

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Filed under: Parenting

Tags: hoaxes

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