When a boy, 3, clicks on a site selling girls, it warps a future adult

Children are not as savvy as adults in detecting real content from fake. We are in the grip of reality TV fever, and almost 4 million Australians sit down to the latest offerings every night. Many of them are kids.

When a child sees real adults in what appear to be real, everyday situations cheating and lying, they will take that at face value, and believe it is authentic rather than the highly manipulated product that adults know it to be. Imagine how this influence a child’s understanding of how to be an adult.

There is an increasingly wide range of content that children (and adults) engage with on screens that presents itself as "real" and trustworthy, but is not. It threatens to warp children's sense of their world and their place in it.

A three-year-old in my research was playing an online game when an image popped up. He fell for the strategy, thought it was part of gameplay and clicked on it. It took him to a highly questionable site advertising girls. We might say he doesn't understand it. He's only three. However, it’s the cumulative effect that is dangerous. If he doesn’t learn to detect such techniques, how will 10 years of clicking influence his understanding of women and what can be bought?

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As he grows he will likely also engage with social media, reality TV, and other fake content. It will be coming at him from all directions and if he hasn’t learnt to distinguish real from fake, it will pack a punch because it will be happening during his young, impressionable years.

Teenagers get the bulk of their news from social media, where fake content is rife. Research shows that more than 80 per cent of young people can’t distinguish real news from less obvious forms of advertising. They tend to focus more on the content of posts or influencers’ videos, and less on the sources or subtle techniques used for product promotion and self-promotion or to sway thinking.

The government's recent announcements of cyber-safety programs are much needed. However, a huge risk is going under the radar – the mass of screen content with ulterior motives that children unknowingly encounter.

Awareness campaigns are needed, much as we have done with cyber-bullying and cyber security. Misjudging fake content also affects adults. A community education approach, extended across the school curriculum, can help. Parents and children may then help each other to differentiate between real and fake.

While we do not know the long-term consequences, children continually making errors in judgment will contribute to twisted values, goals and relationships. Standing back is not an option.

This article originally appeared on the SMH.