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The overwhelming majority of young people are unable to sift through online information and separate fact, fiction and opinion, according to a new study from Stanford University.

Among the hair-raising findings: 93 percent of college students tested were unable to flag a lobbyist’s website as a biased source of information. Younger students fared poorly, too. Fewer than 20 percent of high school students knew that simply looking at one photo online is not enough research to gauge if something is really happening. And among middle school students, 80 percent did not understand that “sponsored content” on a news organization’s website is paid advertising.

The study, Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning, was produced by researchers at the Stanford Graduate School of Education. They measured the ability of students to accurately gauge the validity of information they encounter online. The researchers created 56 tasks for students in 12 states, and collected 7,804 student responses from January 2015 until June 2016.

“Never have we had so much information at our fingertips,” the study’s authors wrote. “Whether this bounty will make us smarter and better informed or more ignorant and narrow-minded will depend on our awareness of this problem and our educational response to it. At present, we worry that democracy is threatened by the ease at which disinformation about civic issues is allowed to spread and flourish.”

Initially, the researchers worried their questions would be too easy. They were working with people who have grown up immersed in all things digital. But the “digital native” moniker is not always an accurate representation of reality. (And young teachers are not always as technologically adept as some might think.)

“Our first round of piloting shocked us into reality,” the report’s authors wrote. “Many assume that because young people are fluent in social media they are equally savvy about what they find there. Our work shows the opposite.”

Related: Getting schooled in social media

These are vital skills for a generation of children who look beyond printed books carefully curated by librarians. Students – and teachers – need to be able to navigate information presented online. It’s not just about reading the news; open educational resources hold promise, too, but only if people know how to flag quality information.

And, according to the study, children were poorly equipped to explain how to find accurate, credible information online.

The research also asked students to judge the veracity of claims made on social media.

For example, when presented with a tweet made from a liberal advocacy group, half of the students judged the tweet without bothering to click the link to read the source of information presented to advance the advocacy group’s claim. And among the students who did click, few were able to articulate why a poll that was cited was credible or not. They made general statements about the dangers of social media, instead of doing the work to investigate the source of information contained in the tweet.

The report suggests that schools must teach students the skills they need to be savvy consumers of news and information they encounter online. And that work must begin early, the authors say – in elementary school, ideally. In the coming months, Stanford’s History Education Group plans to release materials to help teachers do so.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about Blended Learning.

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Nichole Dobo is a national writer for The Hechinger Report and she manages audience engagement strategy. She has more than 15 years of experience writing about teaching and learning. Her work has been...

Letters to the Editor

12 Letters

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  1. Thank you so much for the information and termonoglies provided and showing the ways to separate facts from fiction.

  2. Thank you for information. Many times we tend to ignore a lick attached to an image by only dwelling on the headline of the article.

  3. Who has time to research the researcher’s researcher’s research on everything they read? Isn’t everything in human history a copy of a copy of a copy? In the end, we’re all given the information that we’re given. It’s inevitable that we will be manipulated. Regulation is the only way to control what people put out there, and that hold opposition to freedom. This really is a conundrum. Good faith and will are important to have, but also easily manipulatable. We should be teaching people how to be honest; to refrain from deceit. No one has enough time to discern the real from the fake. We can only hope that humanity figures out how to be honest with the information they share. What is a buck really worth if it costs the reality we spend it in?

  4. This is very interesting. I can say that I have long formed the habit of reading the content of messages to the last before passing my judgement. This is good reminder.

  5. thanks for this eye-opener, am also one of the very majority who doesn’t click through to understand the message instead” dwelling on the headlines.

  6. Thank you very much for sharing this prominent message with us.
    Am now going to stay vigilant online.

  7. Am so happy to able to understand between fact and fiction
    I will be more closely online than before

  8. Extensive study on evaluation and plagiarism; This really makes me benefit from past experiences;
    Thank you very much and more knowledge to work on in the future in our practical life.

  9. I would like to thank you to work hard to let us understand the difference between fact and fiction .
    I go through all the reading words and focus on the meaning of each piece of information I found it impressive and very interesting .
    Thank you very much for this awesome work

  10. Dear publisher,
    Thank you for all your efforts about this article. It is very helpful. You did a great job! Thank you once again!

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