On the Monday of Thanksgiving week, the Wall Street Journal ran a chilling story about the young people of our nation. It wasn’t about drug use, unplanned pregnancies, binge drinking, casual sex, or dropout rates. Far more frighteningly, the report relayed the findings of a Stanford University study about the current generation’s inability to distinguish real news from paid advertisements. Put simply, they don’t know corporate bullshit when they’re looking right at it.
But we can’t necessarily be mad at them. The generation who have raised them are at least partly to blame. Young people who are currently under age 18 were born after 1998, when the explosion of personal technology was beginning. These kids have never lived in a world without ready access to a screen that will comply with their every request. By the time the oldest among them were starting school, both iTunes and Facebook had been launched. They can never remember a time that these innovations weren’t around. A great deal of the problem is our willingness to allow developing young minds to be inundated by messages from screen media.
And the WSJ‘s Sue Shellenbarger tells us what that has done to them:
Some 82% of middle-schoolers couldn’t distinguish between an ad labeled “sponsored content” and a real news story on a website.
The Stanford researchers who conducted the study used a population sample of nearly 8,000 ranging in age from middle school to college-age, and also found this:
Many students judged the credibility of newsy tweets based on how much detail they contained or whether a large photo was attached, rather than on the source.
It’s no wonder that I’m having trouble teaching my high school students about evaluating the credibility of a source they will use in a research paper— No, a blog author named “crazybob” who writes for “The Know It All Ninja” isn’t someone you should trust.
I’m also trying to teach my students to be critical thinkers, and this fact from the article helps me to understand what I’m up against:
More than two out of three middle-schoolers couldn’t see any valid reason to mistrust a post written by a bank executive arguing that young adults need more financial-planning help.
Any Gen-Xer will tell you: never trust a corporation! Never. These kids desperately need a healthy dose of cynicism. So where are their parents? Probably on their phones.
By the end of the article, one cognizant, thoughtful parent does appear; he watchdogs his kids, talks with them about subjects that confuse them, and blocks sites he doesn’t trust. But the rest of America’s middle-schoolers must be flapping in the wind. The article says “that preteens are online 7-1/2 hours a day outside of school.” In the stupefied words of this generation: Wait— what?
My dad used to laugh about something he had heard in one of Redd Foxx’s latter-day TV shows. In the show, Foxx was a grandfather, and in the scene, he told his grandson, who had done something to get in trouble, “Life is hard . . . and it’s even harder when you’re stupid.” He’s right, it is.
We can’t survive as a culture if our children are screen-addicted, gullible, and foolish. And it’s not the schools’ job to fix this. Parents provide the devices and pay the bills, otherwise these teens and pre-teens wouldn’t be able to get online “outside of school.” If we all work together to teach young people the difference between fake and real news, then we change the course of their thinking.
However, that also begs askance: how many adults don’t know the difference?