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Coronavirus – how to help children spot fake news

Girl looking at smartphone

Image: Boggy/stock.adobe.com

A number of stories about coronavirus have been doing the rounds. Children can’t catch Covid-19. Helicopters are going to spray disinfectant from the skies. Children who become seriously ill will be separated from their parents and taken to hospital.

All these stories are fake.

Children can get Covid-19, though their symptoms are typically a lot less severe than adults’. There are no plans for helicopters raining down disinfectant. Nor does anyone intend to separate parents and children. Oh, and that list about rules for lockdown that’s circulating on Facebook? That’s not true, either. Nothing to do with the government’s actual instructions. It’s made up.

The problem is so bad right now that Downing Street’s anti-fake news unit is dealing with up to 10 cases of coronavirus misinformation a day – and some of these articles are getting more views than all of those posted by the NHS combined.

It can be hard enough for adults to tell fact from fiction, especially in such a fast-moving and uncertain situation. And, alarmingly, a government report in 2018 found that only 2% of children and young people have the skills they need to sort out fact from fiction.

So how do we help children as they look up the latest news on everything from when they’ll be allowed to see their friends again to whether they should be worried about their parents and grandparents?

Helping your child separate real news from fake news:

Encourage them to ask: “Where is it coming from?”

  • Information from the NHS, the World Health Organisation (WHO) or BBC Newsround is going to be more reliable than information from someone’s aunt’s friend who works in a hospital.
  • If you’re looking at an unfamiliar website, check out the url (the address line). Is there anything odd about it?
  • What other websites does it link to? Often, sites that look respectable are only one click away from others pushing conspiracy theories or extreme political positions. Judge websites by the company they keep.
  • Can you find the information on any of the reputable sites? Encourage children to double-check any information. The BBC, ITV and Channel 4 all have good coverage of the crisis. News sources that are aimed at young people – such as BBC Newsround – are better still.

Could it be fake?

Look for giveaway signs that the site or the posting isn’t reliable, such as words all in capitals or bad grammar.

Again, check out the places the site takes you off to – or, if it’s a social media posting, the other posts on the feed, and the kind of people who interact with it. Could it be a bot?

Be aware that some hoax (or perhaps mistaken) posts mix up real, obviously trustworthy advice with other stuff that’s fake or false. Don’t assume that because one part checks out, everything will.

Take care over visual images. Pictures can be combined together and manipulated in other ways. Sometimes they can be taken out of context and given a different caption, or attached to a different time and place to give them a completely different meaning.

There’s more advice on how to spot fake news on BBC Bitesize: Fact or Fake?

If you want to double-check a news story, try these reliable fact-check sites:

Think before sharing

We all tend to favour stories that confirm what we already think.

The social media stories that get shared the most are the ones that make us feel strong, negative emotions – fear, fury, or anger. These emotions are much quicker to take us over than positive emotions such as kindness or generosity, and they suit the pace of social media.

Think about why you’re sharing something. Is it because it sparks negative emotion? In that case, is it helpful to pass it on? Are you sure this emotion you’re feeling is rooted in fact? (If you’re feeling emotional, it’s even more important to check.)

Are you sharing it because you want it to be true, rather than because you’re 100% sure it is?

Children are encouraged to have faith in adults – and that’s a good thing. By helping children be critical about what they see online, you can strengthen their faith in your trustworthiness, reassure them that you’re looking out for them, and at the same time teach them to be thoughtful and wise about what they see online.

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