With schools closed, kids face another type of viral threat: misinformation online

The War on Science

Watch the CBSN Originals documentary "The War on Science" in the video player above. 


Piedmont, Oklahoma — Melissa Lau, a veteran middle-school science teacher, is getting used to a new reality shared by parents and educators across the country: virtual classrooms and remote learning. 

School closures due to the coronavirus outbreak have impacted public and private schools that serve over 55 million students across the U.S. Many have shifted to online learning. Of the myriad challenges this poses to teachers, parents and students, Lau is particularly concerned about the misinformation kids are likely to encounter online.

From her home in Oklahoma, she is preparing new sets of lessons that she will begin teaching via video conference on April 6 to her current roster of 158 students. "The first lesson is going to be called 'why do we have to stay at home right now'," Lau told CBSN Originals. "A lot of students and parents are anxious, understandably, and have a lot of questions, because there is so much misinformation out there."

Conspiracy theories about the coronavirus and bogus claims about unproven "cures" have been ricocheting around the internet and social media in recent months, even as tech companies and law enforcement officials have taken steps to try to stop them from spreading. According to a March 2020 Pew Research report, more than half of people who rely on social media for political news say they have encountered made-up news about COVID-19.

Many of those spreading misinformation about the coronavirus are following a well-worn playbook  With just a click or two, students can be drawn into debunked and anti-scientific diatribes about climate change, evolution, and even whether the Earth is flat. Such videos flourished on YouTube for years despite repeated efforts by the company to rein them in.

With kids now spending their school days at home, substituting screen-time for class time, there's all the more opportunity for them to encounter misinformation posing as fact online.

Based on recent surveys, children are increasingly likely to rely on YouTube for information. A 2019 report from Common Sense Media found that 56% of kids ages 8 to 12, and 69% of teens ages 13 to 18, watch videos online every day. But many of the videos may they encounter there, particularly on science subjects, are not based on established scientific data, and instead promote pseudoscience, false claims and conspiracy theories. 

Teachers like Melissa Lau say there are steps parents and students can take to avoid being taken in by bad information online.

"If you're going to have students go off and do research, really emphasize finding primary sources," said Lau, meaning they should track down the original source of information rather than relying on other people's summaries or videos about it. She added that she encourages parents to have conversations with their kids about vetting websites and learning tools available online. 

"It's a survival skill," said Lau. "Especially now that schools are closed and there's so much worry and panic." 

A recent study on how children form their attitudes toward new information suggests that at around age 8, kids begin to prefer information originating from the internet over information obtained from other people. But some educators say teachers and parents still hold a lot of sway.

"With certain information, for example science, kids still trust authority figures like teachers rather than what they're presented with on the internet," said Judith Danovitch, the author of several such studies and an associate professor at the University of Louisville's Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. 

"Research does show that kids learn through social media, especially in terms of feeling connected to friends and family, " she added. 

Like Lau, Danovitch said that vetting the information found online, especially during a period of remote learning, is increasingly important. "One of my key concerns now is that since the internet gets painted in a bad way most of the time, we as educators and parents forget that sites like YouTube can also be such a wonderful source of information for kids."

YouTube says it has made strides in fighting misinformation on the platform. In a December 2019 blog post, the company said:

"Over the past couple of years, we've been working to raise authoritative voices on YouTube and reduce the spread of borderline content and harmful misinformation. And we are already seeing great progress. Authoritative news is thriving on our site. And since January 2019, we've launched over 30 different changes to reduce recommendations of borderline content and harmful misinformation."

A recent study from the University of California, Berkeley found an "encouraging" trend in the reduction in the automated recommendation of "conspiratorial" videos on YouTube. However, the study also found that once a conspiratorial video is clicked, there is a high (though decreasing) likelihood that YouTube will recommend another similar video. 

So even though it has become harder to fall into a feedback loop of anti-scientific YouTube videos, plenty of dangerous misinformation is still lurking online waiting to be discovered.