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How to Help Kids Sort Fact from Fiction About the Coronavirus

This is a crucial time to practice news literacy skills.

Misinformation is spreading quickly right now. And if you're having trouble keeping track of what's real and what's fake, think about kids, who often get their news from YouTube and Instagram. Kids will be seeing lots more viral content, including memes, TikToks, and YouTube videos in the days to come. Some of it may be entertaining and thought-provoking, but lots of it will be fake. Now's the perfect time to sharpen your family's news literacy skills so you can get the vital information you need—and not be duped by misinformation.

Be skeptical. Between the bad actors who create deceiving content and the folks who share it, fake news travels faster than real news. To help kids learn how to separate fact from fiction, encourage them to think critically about what they're hearing and seeing. Challenge them to always verify the source and to withhold commenting and sharing until they know something is legit. More tips:

  • Build critical thinking skills. Walk kids through an analysis of a piece of news or information by asking: Who made this? Why did they make it? Is it for or against something or someone? Are they trying to get a big reaction from me or just inform me? How can I tell? What's left out of this content?
  • Notice your feelings. Clickbait and fake news strive for extreme reactions. If the news you're reading makes you really angry, scared, or smug, take note. Check multiple sources before trusting.
  • Investigate the source. Look for unusual URLs, site names, or social media profiles that try to look like legitimate news or information sites, but aren't. Also, learn more about who wrote or created the content: Are they credible? Biased?
  • Put it in context. Consider whether other credible, mainstream news outlets are reporting the same news. If they're not, it doesn't mean it's not true, but it does mean you should dig deeper.
  • Cross-reference. Go to Snopes and other fact-checking sources before trusting or sharing news that seems too good (or bad) to be true.

Understand different types of content. Talk to kids about the wide variety of information sources and types of content: investigative journalism, research studies, opinion pieces, self-published blogs, punditry, firsthand accounts from friends or family, government reports, memes, and satire.

  • Play "fact or opinion?" Using the radio, TV, or other source, see if kids can pick out what's an indisputable fact and what's an opinion. With older kids, talk about bias and subjectivity and see if they can identify them in an article or video.
  • Ask who they trust. Kids tend to prefer news that's personal and relatable, such as first-person coverage of a conflict or a report from an embedded journalist. That's fine, but explain the professional standards that established news organizations follow, and discuss how that compares to, say, a citizen journalist recording an incident on a cellphone. 
  • Watch out for viral videos or social posts. Content that circulates around the internet may or may not contain nuggets of real news, but it rarely represents the whole situation. And, like photos, videos can be doctored and edited to bend the truth.

Identify credible sources. While we can't shield our kids from all misinformation, we can help them figure out where to go for accurate, up-to-date knowledge.

  • Both the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control have published authoritative information about the coronavirus and are constantly updating their websites. State and city websites and health departments should also have trustworthy updates. If your kid is on TikTok, ask them to show you the WHO's (kinda cringey, but accurate) channel.
  • Share the news sources you use with your kid, focusing on trusted news outlets that follow standard journalistic practices and ethics. Ask your kid to share their sources (friends on the playground, celebrities, YouTube gamers?) and discuss the differences.
  • Think about the differences between firsthand accounts from a family member in Milan or Seoul and a post from someone you don't know but who claims to have unique or authoritative information. Which is more trustworthy? (It's OK if you can't figure out the answer, but the process of thinking this through is instructive.)
Sierra Filucci
Sierra is a journalist with a special interest in media and families. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of California at Berkeley, and she's been writing and editing professionally for more than a decade. As her kids get older, Sierra has developed a special fascination with youth culture, including YouTubers, gamers, social media, and slang. When she's not watching Marvel movies and Parks and Recreation with her kids, she enjoys reading young adult books, walking her dog, and streaming dystopian thrillers late at night.