Corrupted informants: Why kids can’t trust the adults anymore

Hailey Gibbs
Jul 22, 2020 · 9 min read

As the looming return of the school year in the United States draws ever closer, teachers and administrators are not the only agents who should be concerned with how to protect themselves and others from contracting COVID-19. Children everywhere, subject to the policy decisions of their respective school districts, are largely at the mercy of their elders regarding where they will spend their time this fall and how they should guard themselves against this disease.

This is especially critical for young children, who rely on other people to learn about all sorts of things, from the cultural norms of their societies (like whether they should wear a mask) to the nature of the physical world (including about phenomena that they cannot see, like bacteria and viruses).

How do kids learn about the world, in general?

Children learn much of what they come to know about the world from other people, in the form of communicated information that experts refer to as testimony (I am explicit about this because there are a few terms in this area of research that mean different things to different readers — we are not talking about legal testimony. We are talking about what people literally say). Researchers, including myself, have spent years examining the different types of cues kids use to evaluate others’ testimony — when they should trust it, and when they should question it.

From as young as the age of three, children show an ability to identify the person (when given a clear contrast between two) who provided them with accurate information and will subsequently prefer to learn about new things from that person (Koenig, Clément, & Harris, 2004). These findings are critical, because they suggest that young children are not as blindly gullible as many might believe. These results also hold true across different kinds of experimental paradigms, and when the characteristics of the informants are manipulated — including their gender, social status, and the degree of familiarity the child has with them (Mills, 2013).

However, there are some circumstances in which children (and adults) fail to be appropriately critical of what they hear, even when that testimony conflicts with what they see in the world around them.

UVa Psychology Professor Vikram Jaswal found evidence in a study he conducted nearly a decade ago that children will believe someone else’s testimony even when they have an incentive to disregard it, or when it was inconsistent with an event that they had just witnessed. Interestingly, the kids in this study were able to disregard unreliable testimony when they heard it while watching the events with which it conflicted.

This is worth noting because kids are not immune to the news of today. Everywhere they turn, children’s experience of the world is being colored by the role that the novel coronavirus plays in our interactions, the way we conduct business, the physical proximity we can have with our family, friends, and neighbors.

They can see and, depending on how old and plugged in they are, might even be aware of the rising number of cases across the country and the shifting demographics of those infected (trending lately towards younger adults, and observed for the first time this month in a cohort of more than 80 infants).

This data is clearly at odds with the narrative touted by the current administration. Indeed, CNN reports that Trump has made nearly 45 false claims specifically about the coronavirus in the past month alone — including the claim that there would be fewer cases if there was less testing (patently false, and here’s why) and that the vast majority of the cases we do see are “harmless” (also demonstrably false — people are dying and many who survive are left with debilitating health outcomes; see here and here for more information on that point).

So, why is now different?

The era of COVID comes at a singular moment in the history of information transmission. The means by which people gather information has undergone significant changes since the dawn of the internet age — a preponderance of that information is now accessed from online resources which, compared to the textbooks and encyclopedias of bygone eras, tend to undergo far less conceptual and editorial pruning before being made public (the irony of this statement, in a digital thought piece, is not lost on me). Moreover, the current administration has made a concerted effort to misrepresent the nature and transmission of the disease.

Early on in the United States’ reaction to the coronavirus pandemic, the President insisted that it would mysteriously pass of its own accord, and actively worked to spread misinformation about the virus’s mortality rate, how it could be treated, and how long it would take for health experts to develop a vaccine to protect the general public. He has even gone so far as to mock top health expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, calling him an “alarmist” for his reaction to the coronavirus pandemic. Dr. Fauci responded with the succinct correction, “I consider myself more a realist than an alarmist.”

More recently, the White House has exerted its authority to silence the Director of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Dr. Robert Redfield, and other high-ranking CDC officials, preventing them from providing their testimony (the legal kind, this time) regarding the reopening of schools to a House Education and Labor Committee, citing that they should instead be spending their time “focusing on the pandemic response.” Likewise, Betsy DeVos, Secretary of Education, has insisted, despite rising numbers of cases in multiple states and quickly depleting medical resources, that schools must reopen this fall.

These sorts of determined measures to 1) obscure the nature of this disease from the general public; 2) misrepresent the means by which people can, and should, protect themselves; and 3) force schools to reopen despite the advice of health experts, and with inadequate measures to ensure the safety of teachers and students, will be directly responsible for resurgences of COVID-19 in schools and in their surrounding communities.

The United States’ national response effectively disarms the public of the tools that would be most instrumental in enabling it to protect itself. It distorts the severity of the situation, painting it with a sort of toxic positivity that obfuscates the degree of the problem.

The sad reality is that kids in the US are at greater risk than kids in other countries — and not simply because of their government’s COVID response. American children — Black children and other minorities, in particular— are more likely to have other, underlying health conditions that could result in their becoming severely sick with COVID-19, should they become infected (see this CNBC piece for more information). They are also more likely to receive inadequate care (this is a problem with the American healthcare system that plagued Black communities even before the start of the pandemic, which has since only amplified these inequities).

The key, then, as kids and teachers face the potential of returning to school, is to substantially reduce the risk that they become infected in the first place. Other countries, such as Germany, New Zealand, and Norway largely mitigated the problem of surging COVID cases early on by shutting down many of their primary operations — enforcing stay-at-home orders and mask-wearing, closing schools, and policing social distancing.

It seems extreme, from an American perspective, but these countries now have far fewer cases, and are able to safely return to many of their normal activities, without ever having overwhelmed their healthcare systems. Children are even able to return to school, with relatively little imposition on their typical learning experiences — the requirements of mask wearing, distancing, and desk dividers (as in Taiwan).

Denmark, the first country in Europe to impose such a lockdown, reopened its schools in a phased operation — starting with younger kids before moving to secondary schools, theorizing that older kids could do better with regulating themselves in a remote-learning context. Germany deployed the opposite phased reopening plan, beginning with older children, whom they speculated might more successfully adhere to distancing guidelines than younger children. One of the key elements to ensuring student safety and containing any potential outbreaks? Testing.

The experience for children in the US (whose rate of testing, compared to countries with far more effective COVID responses has been abysmally low) has not been the same — and in the case of schools reopening, those disparities will likely only increase. Children in the US face the likelihood that their schools will be confusing, stressful, dangerous environments, made worse by the continued, profound threat of an outbreak, forcing them to abruptly return to remote learning, to contend with having contracted COVID-19, or to cope with having passed it to a more at-risk family member, like a parent or grandparent.

Okay then, where do we go from here?

How do we ensure that children can return to some kind of a safe learning environment, provided that they are indeed required to return?

The basics are still in play:

1) Wash your hands (and encourage your children to do so too).

2) Wear a mask anytime you’re around other humans (and encourage your children to do so too).

3) Avoid anyone whose germ biome might be contaminated and stay 6 feet away from everyone else (continue wearing a mask, even when distancing, even when distancing outside, and encourage your children to do so too).

4) If you start to feel sick (or your child does), self-quarantine and seek the advice of your general practitioner about whether/when you should go to the hospital.

Some institutions, like the YMCA, have been serving the needs of families of first-responders since the beginning of the pandemic, transforming their facilities into child-care centers that have supervised tens of thousands of children since March with fairly promising success.

How have they done this? In the case of young children, they have incorporated protective measures into the fabric of their policies. When children stand in line, they play “airplane arms,” holding both of their arms out parallel with the ground to establish a circle of unoccupied space around their bodies, distancing themselves from the next child in line. Staff wear masks, gloves, sometimes gowns and face shields. And frequent and thorough hand-washing is enforced, and reinforced with challenges, like charging kids with washing off a stamp or marker drawing before they can move to a new game or activity.

What has made this approach so successful (so far) is that it has established new norms for learning. Rules are made explicit, are upheld with consistency, and staff model those norms in every interaction they have with a child. They are effectively changing the dynamic of that social world.

As in the case of general learning, much of what children come to know about the coronavirus and how to protect themselves from it will come from the people in their social worlds.

Modelling responsible behavior, explaining why it is important to continue these safety measures, seeking evidence from health professionals (not people who have a demonstrated track record of trying to misrepresent that evidence), and being conscientious of others will go a long way in controlling the spread of this disease.

But the lessons do not end there. In that study I mentioned earlier, the researcher also found that kids were more likely to believe testimony if they were not confident in their own existing knowledge. This is not necessarily problematic. In traditional learning settings — like school — it is perfectly acceptable to take a teacher’s word for something you know nothing about; teachers, by and large, have their pupils’ best interests at heart. This kind of social learning is critical for children’s development — it enables them to expand their respective worlds by orders of magnitude more than they could solely through their own experiences, by capitalizing on the cumulative knowledge and experiences of the people around them.

But in the case of COVID, the general public has multiple, contradictory sources of information. We essentially have many teachers, all striving to impart different lessons upon us. A critical challenge for any young learner is cultivating the ability to recognize when skepticism is warranted — and might even be life-saving.

Science and Philosophy

Medium’s center for scientifically-informed content.