We need to formalize counter-disinformation education for children and teens

We need to formalize counter-disinformation education for children and teens
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Over the past few months, U.S. lawmakers have questioned the CEOs of Facebook, Twitter and Google, as well as various experts, about the effects of social media on society, and especially on children. Recent data show that children and young adults have been spending more time online because of the COVID-19 pandemic. While online, youngsters inevitably encounter disinformation — that is, false information spread with the intent to deceive — and misinformation — false information spread without intent to deceive. 

As kids and young adults dive deeper into the online space, their education should include lessons on understanding and countering disinformation and misinformation. For these lessons to be effective, teachers must be equipped to understand the complexities of counter-disinformation tactics they’ll be teaching. In partnership with educators, teachers’ associations and education nongovernmental organizations, the funders of open-source journalism and research training, along with the third parties conducting such training sessions, should convene discussions to identify educators’ gaps in knowledge, debate what sorts of training and tools educators could receive, and determine the lessons that should be passed on to students of different ages. 

With limited data to trace the impact of disinformation on children and teens, and with few digital literacy and counter-disinformation programs being tested in the education space, this is an important gap to be filled if we are to hope that future generations will be more proactive and less reactive in countering disinformation than we have been.

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Before COVID-19 hit, children and teens spent on average four hours per day looking at their screens. With many of us stuck at home since March 2020, that time spent online went up ― a lot. Per a Washington Post article published in March 2021, monitoring company Bark (used by schools and parents to track over 5 million kids’ internet usage) found a 144 percent increase in the number of messages children sent and received online in 2020 compared with 2019, including via social media and email.

Yet, the formal education children receive to deal with exposure to disinformation online is practically nonexistent. And while teachers are more aware of best practices for online security, that same knowledge doesn’t always transfer to understanding and countering disinformation. This is the case with the curricula they teach as well, which most often focuses more on cybersecurity and privacy, and which is only beginning to be considered in a few states.

We are already behind when it comes to supporting teachers and students in countering disinformation. UNESCO has curricula for journalism school students, but the question of how to teach children and teens about disinformation and how to create curricula on digital literacy remains largely unaddressed. Such questions have been coming up in cybersecurity and disinformation-related panels and conferences since at least 2018, but we have not properly given thought to expanding training beyond journalists, researchers and journalism students.

For education to keep pace with the rate of online change, more funding is needed to prepare teachers to properly support counter-disinformation education. Since disinformation first became a hot topic in broader political discussions in 2016, technology companies, international organizations, NGOs and universities have focused much of their efforts on training journalists and researchers. More money should be allocated to preparing teachers and parents to equip kids to identify and critically analyze disinformation so that they may become better consumers of information and more critical thinkers in today’s digital world.

As a society, when it comes to the issues of disinformation, we tend to focus on the most immediate needs, but it is important to prepare for the future. Thinking 20 years down the line when so many false narratives are circulating can be overwhelming. But teachers deal with the responsibility of preparing kids to be capable, well-rounded adults every day ― they will help lead this effort.

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Two years into a pandemic that has spurred digital innovation and led to more time being spent online, we need to develop a clearer path to more formal educational programming on counter-disinformation ― with a concerted effort to understand what has been done to date and to standardize some lessons across states, and perhaps even across countries. 

Google, Facebook, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and other organizations have done a lot to allocate funding to programs on media and digital literacy. Looking to the future, it is time to bring organizations together with educators to discuss how best to train the trainers to support children and teens in applying critical thinking and analysis to stand against disinformation online. 

Roberta Braga is a cyber fellow with Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. She is communications manager for North America at Baker McKenzie, and previously was deputy director of programs and outreach at the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, where she co-led efforts to counter disinformation in Latin America in partnership with the Digital Forensic Research Lab. Follow her on Twitter @RobertaSBraga.