Can adults with college degrees fall for fake news too?
Spoiler Alert: Yes
There’s a story blowing up EDU Twitter today about how Snapchat, Instagram and other social media platforms are harmful to mental health. I’ve seen it shared by a lot of people I admire and respect and those shares are garnering dozens of likes and retweets. Unfortunately, one thing it does not seem to be garnering is a healthy dose of skepticism.
The first share I saw was to this version of the story, on a site I’ve never heard of that features a ton of sensationalistic click-bait links. Everything about this site struck me as dubious and the reporting itself served to increase my skepticism. The part that really gave me pause was this quote:
The findings also showed that the rates of anxiety and depression among youngsters have increased by 70 percent in the past 25 years.
The “findings” are based on a survey of under 1,500 young people. While surveys can be part of scientific research, Erika Hall taught me that they are regarded as dangerous tools that are difficult to do well. I can’t help but think to myself that thousands of people are sharing “research” about the impact of social media based on the equivalent of the results of a high school’s senior poll for Most Likely to Succeed.
The second share I saw of this story was to a version in The Guardian, a publication I’ve at least heard of. The time stamp on The Guardian’s post is about 2 hours later than the aforementioned site (meaning it wasn’t their scoop). It’s worth noting that this piece left out the suspicious claim above about the 70% increase in anxiety and depression, and included this:
However, the leader of the UK’s psychiatrists said the findings were too simplistic and unfairly blamed social media for the complex reasons why the mental health of so many young people is suffering.
Prof Sir Simon Wessely, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “I am sure that social media plays a role in unhappiness, but it has as many benefits as it does negatives.. We need to teach children how to cope with all aspects of social media — good and bad — to prepare them for an increasingly digitised world. There is real danger in blaming the medium for the message.”
These two paragraphs confirm that the story here is that there is no story here. So why is it being widely shared?
This is important! The one leading expert sourced in the article basically undermines the headline and discredits the report, actually cautioning against the “real danger” in the assertions being made. These two paragraphs confirm that the story here is that there is no story here. So why is it being widely shared?
In less than 2 hours, a single share of The Guardian link by an educator I follow and admire on Twitter has 16 retweets and 100 favorites. Assuming that many of this educator’s followers are fellow educators, we’re talking about several dozen people with college and post-graduate degrees drinking the Kool Aid. We therefore can’t blame the misleading story’s spread solely on undereducated masses.
As educators, we have to take a look in the mirror
We are constantly reinforcing for our students that being critical consumers of information is a key to Digital and Web Literacy. Many of us have probably leaned on Common Sense Media’s resources like this post on How to Spot Fake News (and Teach Kids to Be Media-Savvy) by Sierra Filucci. But are we walking the talk?
According to Filucci, we should be asking, Who made this? What is left out of this message that might be important? Is this credible (and what makes you think that)? Based on how much the stories on this mental health survey are being shared by folks in my network, I believe that many are not asking these questions. In fact, I suspect that a lot of people interacting with this are clicking to like and/or share the link without even clicking on it themselves.
This, I think, might be the teachable moment here. We owe it to our peer networks to be critical. And even more so than to our colleagues, we need to model to our students how we are responsibly consuming information because they are watching and are more likely to do as we do than as we say.
Update: For more resources from Common Sense Media (like these Digital Citizenship courses for teachers) be sure to check out their website at www.commonsensemedia.org. Shoutout to Michael Weinraub for sharing!
Thank you in advance for clicking the heart to recommend this post so others can discover it. As always, your thoughts, ideas and pushback replies are appreciated and valued.
Lastly, if you dig that Creative Commons citation of the photo of the guy in the mirror, I created it with Alan Levine’s handy dandy flickr creative commons attribution plug in. It’s free, easy to use, and can be added as a widget to your browser to automate the attribution process. It is available here.