Teenagers can't discern true from fake online health messages - study

Most existing research on media literacy involves adults. However, adolescents are equally active online and need to have the skills to understand health information. 

Fake news [Illustrative] (photo credit: PIXABAY)
Fake news [Illustrative]
(photo credit: PIXABAY)

Teenagers are often overlooked as being at a high risk for consuming misinformation on the internet. They are active online information-seekers and despite being highly skilled in learning new tech, they are not always taught how to discern misinformation on the web.

“As adolescents are frequent users of the internet, we usually expect that they already know how to approach and appraise online information, but the opposite seems to be true.”

Dr. Radomír Masaryk, Comenius University

A peer-reviewed study, published in late August in Frontiers in Psychology, examined the effects of manipulating different editorial elements of health messages on young readers. 

Researchers disseminated seven different short messages about the health benefits of fruits and vegetables to 300 young adults. The participants were asked to rate the messages' trustworthiness and the administrators controlled for participants' scientific reasoning, cognitive reflection and media literacy

Results showed that only 48% of adolescents trusted accurate health messages without any extra editorial elements more than fake ones. Some 41% considered fake and true neutral messages equally trustworthy. Finally, 11% considered true neutral messages less trustworthy than fake health messages. 

Fake news (credit: DR)Fake news (credit: DR)

“There has been an explosion of misinformation in the area of health during the Covid-19 pandemic,” said principal investigator Dr. Radomír Masaryk of Comenius University in the Slovakian capital of Bratislava.

What can we do about it?

The study authors concluded that adolescents should be trained to recognize health messages with editorial aspects that indicate poor quality. They should also be shown how to properly understand this information.

The only version of a health message that was significantly less trusted compared to a true health message was a message with a clickbait headline,” Masaryk said.

Most existing research on media literacy involves adults. However, adolescents are equally active online and need to have the skills to understand health information. 

“As adolescents are frequent users of the internet, we usually expect that they already know how to approach and appraise online information, but the opposite seems to be true” commented Masaryk. “Analytical thinking and scientific reasoning are skills that help distinguish false from true health messages."