Tech & Media
I’m Trying To Help My Daughter Navigate COVID-19 Conspiracy Theories And It’s Exhausting
BY CRAIG STEPHENS
ILLUSTRATION BY MICHELLE RUNOWSKI/CBC KIDS
Jul 2, 2020
Did you know that wearing a medical mask ups the risk of catching COVID-19? Or that giant murder hornets are going to swarm and sting families across Canada? Or that the COVID vaccine will contain a hidden microchip that arch-villain Bill Gates will inject into every arm on Earth, turning us all into subservient zombies?
None of what I just wrote is true.
We live in a bizarre time when falsehood peddlers of every stripe are pushing their truth-bending narratives on social platforms. Sadly, many young people are tuning in and getting pulled down dangerous rabbit holes.
My daughter is no exception. Like most kids, she’s no stranger to mass hysteria. She had her first taste of it way back in senior kindergarten. Ever hear of Bloody Mary? My child certainly has, and it haunted her imagination for months.
"It was our first foray into teaching what I would come to realize was one of life’s most essential skills: the ability to think independently and critically."
The school she attended at the time was a gracious, sprawling and admittedly spooky century-old building with tall ceilings and expansive windows. Pictures of students, many of whom lived and died decades ago, adorn its echoey halls.
According to the legend, young student Mary was murdered there a century ago and doomed to eternally roam the nether regions of the building’s basement. The story goes that you could conjure her up by saying “Bloody Mary” three times while looking in the bathroom mirror. It terrified the kids. It frightened my daughter. Frankly, it scared me too.
We went to great pains to reassure her that Bloody Mary existed only in the imaginations of her young schoolmates. If you couldn’t see her, hear her or touch her, chances were pretty good that Mary’s ghost wasn’t real. It was our first foray into teaching what I would come to realize was one of life’s most essential skills: the ability to think independently and critically.
Fast forward a few years to a time that I could never have imagined — a society rife with conspiracies, and the U.S. being led by the conspiracy-theorist-in-chief himself. These conspiracies are abundant and multiplying — think the racist birther movement enabled by Trump, 9/11, misinformation around the Sandy Hook tragedy and the ever-evolving falsehoods surrounding COVID-19.
This dad will do anything to keep his daughter glued to her phone. Read that story here.
As my daughter has matured from school girl to young teen, I have felt it my duty to help her discern fact from falsehood. It is a daunting task, as local and world news can be dispiriting and challenging to explain. My goal is to raise an independent young woman, and from what I’ve seen so far, I have great faith that her generation will bring the kind of change our society and planet so desperately needs.
That is why I was so shocked one day early in the pandemic when she shared some pretty wild theories she’d heard floating around online. Many about COVID-19, others about the invading hordes of murder hornets and even a few about thousands of children held as slaves in subterranean New York.
When I asked where she was getting these wild stories from, I was surprised by her answer: TikTok! Really? While I haven’t been thrilled about her being on this platform, I assumed it was, for the most part, a harmless place to share dance and comedy videos. I had no idea it was a primary news source for many young and impressionable minds. And that, in a nutshell, is what scares me — never before have kids had widespread access to so much information. Never before has so much of it been false.
Is it OK to digitally spy on your teen? Asking for a mom. Here's her story.
Surprisingly, the remarkable access to our daughter created by quarantine has also provided a unique opportunity to address this issue. We’ve had an abundance of quality time to sit and talk and take our communication to an entirely new level. A time-out from work, school, extra-curricular activities and her ever-going social life has allowed us to discover what she is thinking, what she is making of it all and where she is turning to for information.
These regular discussions offer great teaching moments to emphasize the importance of basing beliefs on facts backed not by emotion, but by evidence. We encourage asking powerful questions: Are the views shared by a person based on facts, or are they merely stating an opinion? What are the person’s credentials? Do they have the expertise to voice a valid opinion? Are they emotional, looking for a confrontation, trying to manipulate you or merely searching for a target at which to rage? And perhaps most important, are these falsehoods hurting people?
Those pushing false narratives are slick and convincing. And now that my daughter is a teenager, I am no longer able to protect her from the world of trolls selling lies to kids. But I can do my darndest to provide her with the intellectual tools required to base her opinions on factual evidence as opposed to those who maliciously twist the truth — no matter who they are or how high their station.
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