How kids and teens can navigate social media in the era of fake news

Teaching youth to think critically is essentially, in the increasingly murky world of online information, says Adam Dubé, assistant professor in McGill's department of educational and counselling psychology.

McGill lecture series tackles childhood anxiety, learning diffculties and online pressures

A 16-year-old boy is seen here surfing Facebook. Prof. Adam Dubé says stamping out social media use altogether would be difficult because it's become so central to the way we communicate, learn and seek entertainment. (Associated Press)

If recent worries over fake news and targeted use of personal data are any indication, adults are pretty bad at dealing with misinformation on social media.

That's why teaching kids from an early age to think critically about what they read, see, and share online is so important, according to Adam Dubé, assistant professor in McGill University's department of educational and counselling psychology.

Dubé is one of the lecturers in McGill's Effective Parenting series, taking place Tuesday nights from April 3 to May 1. He aims to help parents teach their kids to navigate the sometimes murky world of online information.

"We used to think of the internet as a repository of knowledge…like a digital encyclopedia," says Dubé, who specializes in educational technology.

"Now it's changed...there's arguably more misleading information online."

Dubé says a child or teen's ability to tell a reliable source from an unreliable one is an essential skill, not just for school research projects, but for life.

"Not just, 'What's in the books that are provided for me,' but how to distinguish good information from bad," he says.

Dubé suggests parents discuss items that are in the news with their kids, and ask them whether it rings true and why they think that, to get them used to challenging their own assumptions and biases.

He also recommends teaching kids and young teens about tools like Snopes and Politifact that attempt to debunk myths shared as articles or memes.

Children learn 'social values' from YouTube, Instagram

Even if most kids are just watching YouTube and not sharing political articles, parents might not be aware of everything their children are absorbing online, Dubé says.

Adam Dubé, assistant professor in McGill's department of educational and counselling psychology says it's increasingly important for children to learn to distinguish "good information from bad" if they want to learn effectively in the digital age. (
 He gives the example of PewDiePie, one of YouTube's biggest stars with more than 61 million subscribers, who posts mostly videogame runthroughs that are popular with young people.

He also called another gamer the n-word during a video livestream and shared anti-Semitic imagery in another video.

Dubé says other celebrities may not share racist content, but may produce paid product placement and promotion, which younger people may not identify as advertising.

He says parents should ask their kids about the celebrities they follow online and explain that even if they like their videos or memes, it doesn't mean they should believe everything that person says.

That goes for what their friends are sharing online as well.

"So that you don't contribute to the problem, don't just share something. Read what you share. Be a good digital citizen," he says.

'You're not the customer, you're the product'

At a time when some adults are vowing to delete their Facebook accounts, following the scandal about Cambridge Analytica's use of personal data, some parents might be wary about letting their kids start to use social media at all. 

While most social media, including Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and YouTube, state a user must be at least 13 years old, many kids younger than this are using these platforms.

Dubé says stamping out social media use altogether would be difficult because it's become so central to the way we communicate, learn and seek entertainment.

"It's important that they don't feel constrained and held back, because they're just going to do it and hide it anyway," he says.

But he says there should still be limits.

For platforms like YouTube, Dubé suggests having a family account that kids can use, while still allowing parents to set age restrictions and track the history to see what their children have been watching. 

As teens get older, he says parents can allow more freedom and less monitoring, but still maintain frequent check-ins about the types of things their kids are accessing online. 

Dubé says those conversations should include teaching children to think carefully about what kind of information they share online and to recognize that social media companies "want to learn about you so they can send you ads and sell you things."

"The idea is that, if you're using a service like Facebook or Google, and you're not paying for it, that means you're not the customer, you're the product," he says.


Ainslie MacLellan is a journalist at CBC Montreal. Follow her on Twitter: @CBCAinslie.