Today's teens and tweens have grown up casually using cutting-edge technology their parents never possessed. These "digital natives" can work their way around an iPhone or Android like a concert pianist at the keyboard, connecting to millions of people in the world at large in the time it takes their parents to locate the texting app on their homescreen.
That comfort with the technology, however, does not always translate into an understanding of the information being shared. Recent studies have shown that teens are just as likely to fall victim to "fake news" as their older counterparts. Adults thus far have not done enough to reverse the trend.
Over the course of a year and half, Stanford University researchers asked almost 8,000 students to evaluate online content, ranging from Facebook and Instagram posts to tweets and partisan websites. The results were less than encouraging.
"Students of all ages struggled mightily," the researchers wrote. "Middle school students mistook advertisements for news stories. High schoolers were unable to verify social media accounts. College students blithely accepted a website's description of itself."
Teens themselves admit to being confused.
Gloucester seventh-grader Evalyn York, for example, is certain fake news is freely flowing through her several social media accounts. The problem, she told reporter Caroline Enos last week, is that it is difficult to tell fact from fiction, to know which online sources are bogus and which can be trusted.
"I didn't even know what a verification check mark meant," York said, referring to the status symbol Twitter, Instagram and other social media providers use to let users know an account is tied to a "verified" person or organization.
The consequences of such confusion are profound. We hope and expect our young people will grow into informed, engaged citizens. But how can that happen when no one knows what information can be trusted?
There is cause for optimism. With the proper resources and training, digital natives can be turned into digital experts able to fact-check the information gushing from their phones.
One of the initiatives aimed at helping teens navigate social media hit the area last week. Instructors from MediaWise, in partnership with The Salem News and North of Boston Media Group, visited schools in Salem, Beverly, Gloucester and Danvers, meeting face-to-face with students to offer tips on how to sort fake news from the real thing.
The idea, said instructor Katy Byron, is to teach students "how to spot misinformation and disinformation and how to figure out on your own what is reliable, what is accurate and also what is unreliable and inaccurate."
The presentations included discussions of "deep-fake" videos -- and the airing of one such video with comedian Jordan Peele providing a fake voice-over for President Barack Obama -- and "lateral reading," the idea of consuming and verifying information by visiting a number of sources.
Once-a-year presentations are helpful, if the reaction of the students last week is any indication. What is truly needed, however, is the addition of media literacy instruction for middle school and high school students in a serious, sustained fashion as part of their civics education. This fall, MediaWise will introduce a classroom version of its presentation that can be used by teachers everywhere.
The good news is that the state recently made restoring civics education to Bay State classrooms a priority, and actually set aside money for the effort. The law requires that schools help students "develop skills to access, analyze and evaluate written and digital media as it relates to history and civics."
It is crucial that educators don't gloss over the digital media instruction, as that is where the current generation of students get most of their information.
As Byron said, soon the teens will be "deciding where to go for college, where to get their first jobs. All these things are impacted by what they read and watch online, especially on social media -- because we all know that kids spend a lot of time on social media."