The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Kids consume news but don’t know what’s real and what’s fake. Parents can help.


Kids these days are big consumers of news. Unfortunately, many of them can’t tell the difference between what’s real and what’s not.

And you, dear parents, need to bridge that gap.

According to a new report released Wednesday by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that aims to help kids and parents navigate media and technology, about half of the almost 900 children surveyed (ages 10 to 18) said that following the news is important to them, and 70 percent said that consuming news makes them feel “smart and knowledgeable.”

How to help kids make sense of the media in their lives

However, the part of the study that should alarm the adults in their lives: These kids are fooled by fake news. That makes them distrustful of the news media, which is the very thing that can teach them about their world. Less than half of the children interviewed (44 percent) said that they can tell fake news stories from real ones. And of the kids who shared a news story online in the past six months, 31 percent said they posted a story that turned out to be inaccurate or wrong.

These findings are complicated by the fact that many adults believe fake news, thanks in part to outlets whose sole purpose is to publish falsities.

The kids who are reading the news are getting it mostly from their family, teachers and/or friends (63 percent), while 49 percent are getting their news from social media or websites. Forty-six percent are getting their news in traditional ways, such as print newspapers, television and radio.

The fact that more are getting their news from their parents than anywhere else means it’s important to talk to kids about what’s in the news, said James Steyer, founder and chief executive of Common Sense. Parents “should be aware that news really matters to their kids. They play a critical role and need to value truth and accuracy and the fundamental importance to the First Amendment. It’s never been more important than it is right now.”

One factor that complicates whether tweens and teens can make sense of what they’re reading is that they prefer to get their news from social media. When asked to select their preferred news source, 39 percent chose “online news sources,” (Facebook being the most common, with YouTube coming in second). It is often social media sites that are the channels for fake news. Meanwhile, 36 percent prefer to get news from family, teachers and friends, and just 24 percent selected traditional media.

Another reason parents need to help kids when they read the news? Because many children (63 percent) feel angry and/or depressed by the news they read. That means parents need to help them translate what they read, put it into context and take the facts they learn from a news story even further so they can understand their world more fully.

“When you have … people at highest levels of government using terms like ‘alternate facts,’ then it’s a real challenge for young people,” Steyer says. “They have to learn … digital literacy. They have to think critically about the content they are consuming. Just because it’s on the Internet doesn’t mean it’s true.”