Minimising screen time is not the answer, we need to teach kids to spot the fake news: experts

When it comes to navigating the digital world and sifting through what's real and what's fake, two experts say minimising your children's screen time is not the best course of action.

Tell-tale signs of fake news

  • Unusual URLs or site names

  • Bad spelling and grammar, words in all caps

  • Check a site's 'About Us' section to see who supports the site or is associated with it

  • Unsubstantiated claims lacking in evidence

A group of experts and academics came together for the Sydney Science Festival, held at the Sydney Opera House, to examine the fake news phenomenon, and the impact on the internet's younger users.

Researcher Dr Joanne Orlando specialises in the field of children and technology, and said children were engaging with fake news from a very early age. "You might think 'poor kids, they're growing up in this world, what's going to happen to them?'," Dr Orlando said.

"Are they just going to have this completely distorted understanding about life?"

But Dr Orlando said while the current discussion was about how to get kids off their devices, parents needed to instead take a more sophisticated approach to managing their children's relationship with technology.

"We seem to think a lot about screen time — let's get them off, let's minimise their time on screen," she said.

"But is that happening at the expense of us helping them to understand what it's actually like when they're online, how they're actually supposed to be engaging with the online world?"

She suggested parents should help their kids learn how to critique what they see online.

That can involve giving children the ability to spot tell-tale signs of fake news, such as odd URLs, bad spelling and grammar, advertising links and claims that are not substantiated by evidence.

"One of the great things about my work is that I get to see what kids and young people can do on technology, and they can do some absolutely brilliant things," Dr Orlando said.

"So I think if anything, the internet has helped us see how capable children are.

"They're growing up in the digital age where technology and the online world is incredibly important.

"So we want them to be able to engage with that aspect of their life just as well as they engage with their face to face aspect.

Is digital abstinence the way?

While some might consider digital abstinence, psychologist Jocelyn Brewer said avoiding the internet entirely was not a practical option for most.

"We don't really learn anything about ourselves if we're just jumping off social media, or technology, without having the reflection upon what we need to change," she said.

Ms Brewer said if people were made conscious of their screen addiction, they could then be encouraged to develop better tech habits. "I would suggest sometimes that digital abstinence and detoxing might be impractical and ineffective," she said.

"Sure, if you've overdosed to some degree or you're having trouble and you need to bring your tech use back, that might be something that you would try."

She suggested that when it came to young people, framing a positive argument to help them change their behaviour online was more effective than simply restricting access.

Dr Brewer said the fake news phenomenon had also created positive opportunities, and called for more emphasis to be placed on those benefits. "There's some benefit to us in being able to spot fake news and developing the skills to spot fake news, because you're building cognitive capacity," she said.

"That's where that can go in a positive direction — to say well if you're learning to spot fake news, you're learning to develop higher analytical thinking skills."

She said it was important that everyone, not just young people, develop "critical literacy around their media and the digital world."

Will sorting the real from the fake only get easier?

Like many children their age, 11-year-old Hugh and his four-year-old brother Nate love spending time on their electronic devices.

And even at their age they know that, at times, the internet is not always exactly what it seems.

"It depends what part of the internet you're looking at," Hugh said.

"Like say maybe you're watching [videos] about games on YouTube — that's probably true because who would want to lie to someone about that?

"But say there's [something saying] 'water companies are the best thing ever', you probably shouldn't believe that because that's probably sponsored by a water company."

However, Hugh said people should avoid spending too much time looking at a screen — at least on weekdays.

"On the weekends it's ok to be on it quite a bit, but you should still be active, maybe go to your friend's house or go to the park with them."

He said navigating the internet and sorting the real from the fake would only get easier for future generations.

"Each generation is more familiar with technology," he said.

"When I'm in the city I might see a toddler in a pram watching YouTube on an iPad, so they're getting familiar with it.

"But with fake news and spam and stuff, they might need quite a bit of teaching because they might just think the internet is a happy place, and it's not."

This article originally appeared on ABC News and was written by Maisie Cohen.