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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 the senior editor for audience engagement and a writer. Her work has been published in the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, The Atlantic's online edition, Mind/Shift, WHYY NewsWorks, Slate...

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

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