How to Help Your Teens Navigate Disinformation Online

June 6, 2024

During the COVID-19 pandemic, I gained a broader perspective on the online world my three teenagers inhabited, particularly regarding the quality of information they consumed, which came almost exclusively from social media apps and messaging services. Like many other parents, my wife and I had grown concerned that too much time online was impacting their mental health and overall development.

Then one day, I watched as my son became agitated by a video that was circulating online which warned that WWIII was imminent and that teens should be prepared for a nation-wide draft. The story was based on a U.S. drone strike in Iraq that killed an Iranian general in 2020. But the sensational speculation about the aftermath was pure fiction.

That was when I first realized my kids were highly exposed to disinformation. 

Disinformation is defined as false information knowingly shared to cause harm. By contrast, misinformation is defined as false information shared without the intention to cause harm.

I was familiar with the power of disinformation from decades of experience in national security. But it had always been a topic that was abstract and academic. Then suddenly it arrived like a bombshell in my living room and my own teens were the audience.

History is full of examples of governments or bad actors using disinformation to achieve political ends or to manipulate audiences. However, the age of social media has made disinformation more easily weaponized due to the speed with which false information can spread and the scale of its reach. Every click, mention, or “like” can spread a harmful meme to exponentially more consumers. 

Having been born in the post-social media age, most teens are more reliant on social media for information than any other generation, making them especially vulnerable to the effects of widespread disinformation. One report even found that 73% of teenagers get their news from social media

The exposure to social media and by extension disinformation is especially concerning for mental health as studies have shown that disinformation can lead to anxiety, confusion and more alarmingly, feed dangerous perceptions. 

So, what can be done? 

After the WWIII incident with my son, I realized that teenagers needed better access to information and resources about how to identify disinformation online. It was that realization that led my family and I to create The Disinformation Project, an organization that promotes greater awareness and education about today’s complex information environment. We aim to empower teenagers to become resilient to disinformation by connecting them with reputable resources and frameworks. 

Many parents already discuss topics related to online safety with their children, including guidance on interacting with strangers online, cyberbullying and cyber safety. Here are some ways parents and guardians can include the subject of disinformation awareness in these conversations:

1. Talk to your teenagers about disinformation and the dangers it can create. 

2. Discuss the importance of fact-checking and verifying information before (re)sharing or interacting with content online. Encourage your teens to visit reputable news outlets and official websites in their fact-checking.

3. Develop your teenager's critical thinking skills. This means encouraging your teens to question information they come across online by evaluating the source of the information, considering biases and looking for evidence to support claims. 

4. Teach your teenager to be skeptical of content that provokes a strong emotional reaction. Disinformation producers use sensational content to manipulate feelings. Emotions like anger, shock, and surprise hinder critical thinking. Encourage slowing down to consider the content's purpose, origin, and intended effects.

5. Keep yourself informed about online trends, platforms and potential risks. This knowledge will help you guide your teenagers effectively. 

Having these conversations with your kids early and often will give them the tools to make informed decisions about engaging with disinformation online, and will ultimately lead to positive outcomes for their education, mental health and more. Parents can help inform and create a stronger next generation by identifying and talking to their teens about disinformation.

Written by

Matt Verich

Matt Verich recently retired from the U.S. Navy after serving as a military intelligence officer for over twenty years. Matt founded The Disinformation Project after witnessing their teenage children become heavily exposed to dangerous false narratives online during theCOVID-19 pandemic. Already knowledgeable about how state actors use disinformation, he was inspired to act after observing how technology, politics, data and social media habits have combined to create the perfect storm for online disinformation.