Impact of Online Misinformation on Child Development

Neeraj Soni and Dr Brinda Banerjee
Neeraj Soni and Dr Brinda Banerjee
Tech Policy and Research,CyberPeace
Jul 6, 2024

The Rise of Tech Use Amongst Children

Technology today has become an invaluable resource for children, as a means to research issues, be informed about events, gather data, and share views and experiences with others. Technology is no longer limited to certain age groups or professions: children today are using it for learning & entertainment, engaging with their friends, online games and much more. With increased digital access, children are also exposed to online mis/disinformation and other forms of cyber crimes, far more than their parents, caregivers, and educators were in their childhood or are, even in the present. Children are particularly vulnerable to mis/disinformation due to their still-evolving maturity and cognitive capacities. The innocence of the youth is a major cause for concern when it comes to digital access because children simply do not possess the discernment and caution required to be able to navigate the Internet safely. They are active users of online resources and their presence on social media is an important factor of social, political and civic engagement but young people and children often lack the cognitive and emotional capacity needed to distinguish between reliable and unreliable information. As a result, they can be targets of mis/disinformation. ‘A UNICEF survey in 10 countries’[1] reveals that up to three-quarters of children reported feeling unable to judge the veracity of the information they encounter online.

Social media has become a crucial part of children's lives, with them spending a significant time on digital platforms such as Youtube, Facebook, Instagram and more. All these platforms act as source of news, educational content, entertainment, peer communication and more. These platforms host a variety of different kinds of content across a diverse range of subject matters, and each platform’s content and privacy policies are different. Despite age restrictions under the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), and other applicable laws, it is easy for children to falsify their birth date or use their parent's accounts to access content which might not be age-appropriate. 

The Impact of Misinformation on Children

In virtual settings, inaccurate information can come in the form of text, images, or videos shared through traditional and social media channels. In this age, online misinformation is a significant cause for concern, especially with children, because it  can cause anxiety, damage self-esteem, shape beliefs, and skewing their worldview/viewpoints. It can distort children's understanding of reality, hinder their critical thinking skills, and cause confusion and cognitive dissonance. The growing infodemic can even cause an overdose of information. Misinformation can also influence children's social interactions, leading to misunderstandings, conflicts, and mistrust among peers. Children from low literacy backgrounds are more susceptible to fabricated content. Mis/disinformation can exacerbate social divisions amongst peers and lead to unwanted behavioural patterns. Sometimes even children themselves can unwittingly spread/share misinformation. Therefore, it is important to educate & empower children to build cognitive defenses against online misinformation risks, promote media literacy skills, and equip them with the necessary tools to critically evaluate online information.

CyberPeace Policy Wing Recommendations

  1. Role of Parents & Educators to Build Cognitive Defenses

One way parents shape their children's values, beliefs and actions is through modelling. Children observe how their parents use technology, handle challenging situations, and make decisions. For example, parents who demonstrate honesty, encourage healthy use of social media and show kindness and empathy are more likely to raise children who hold these qualities in high regard. Hence parents/educators play an important role in shaping the minds of their young charges and their behaviours, whether in offline or online settings. It is important for parents/educators to realise that they must pay close attention to how online content consumption is impacting the cognitive skills of their child. Parents/educators should educate children about authentic sources of information. This involves instructing children on the importance of using reliable, credible sources to utilise while researching on any topic of study or otherwise, and using verification mechanisms to test suspected information., This may sound like a challenging ideal to meet, but the earlier we teach children about Prebunking and Debunking strategies and the ability to differentiate between fact and misleading information, the sooner we can help them build cognitive defenses so that they may use the Internet safely. Hence it becomes paramount important for parents/educators to require children to question the validity of information, verify sources, and critically analyze content. Developing these skills is essential for navigating the digital world effectively and making informed decisions.

  1. The Role of Tech & Social Media Companies to Fortify their Steps in Countering Misinformation

Is worth noting that all major tech/social media companies have privacy policies in place to discourage any spread of harmful content or misinformation. Social media platforms have already initiated efforts to counter misinformation by introducing new features such as adding context to content, labelling content, AI watermarks and collaboration with civil society organisations to counter the widespread online misinformation. In light of this, social media platforms must prioritise both the designing and the practical implementation aspects of policy development and deployment to counter misinformation strictly. These strategies can be further improved upon  through government support and regulatory controls. It is recommended that social media platforms must further increase their efforts to counter increasing spread of online mis/disinformation and apply advanced techniques to counter misinformation including filtering, automated removal, detection and prevention, watermarking, increasing reporting mechanisms, providing context to suspected content, and promoting authenticated/reliable sources of information.

Social media platforms should consider developing children-specific help centres that host educational content in attractive, easy-to-understand formats so that children can learn about misinformation risks and tactics, how to spot red flags and how to increase their information literacy and protect themselves and their peers. Age-appropriate, attractive and simple content can go a long way towards fortifying young minds and making them aware and alert without creating fear. 

  1. Laws and Regulations

It is important that the government and the social media platforms work in sync to counteract misinformation. The government must consult with the concerned platforms and enact rules and regulations which strengthen the platform’s age verification mechanisms at the sign up/ account creation stage whilst also respecting user privacy. Content moderation, removal of harmful content, and strengthening reporting mechanisms all are important factors which must be prioritised at both the regulatory level and the platform operational level. Additionally, in order to promote healthy and responsible use of technology by children, the government should collaborate with other institutions to design information literacy programs at the school level. The government must make it a key priority to work with civil society organisations and expert groups that run programs to fight misinformation and co-create  a safe cyberspace for everyone, including children. 

  1. Expert Organisations and Civil Societies

Cybersecurity experts and civil society organisations possess the unique blend of large scale impact potential and technical expertise. We have the ability to educate and empower huge numbers, along with the skills and policy acumen needed to be able to not just make people aware of the problem but also teach them how to solve it for themselves. True, sustainable solutions to any social concern only come about when capacity-building and empowerment are at the heart of the initiative. Programs that prioritise resilience, teach Prebunking and Debunking and are able to understand the unique concerns, needs and abilities of children and design solutions accordingly are the best suited to implement the administration’s mission to create a safe digital society. 

Final Words 

Online misinformation significantly impacts child development and can hinder their cognitive abilities, color their viewpoints, and cause confusion and mistrust. It is important that children are taught not just how to use technology but how to use it responsibly and positively. This education can begin at a very young age and parents, guardians and educators can connect with CyberPeace and other similar initiatives on how to define age-appropriate learning milestones. Together, we can not only empower children to be safe today, but also help them develop into netizens who make the world even safer for others tomorrow. 


Jul 6, 2024
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