There’s a growing unhappy fact of life — fake news. Most of us get that some of the magazines winking at us from the shelves next to the grocery check-out counter with their unbelievable headlines and pictures (e.g., three-headed Martians) are just that, unbelievable. But increasingly, there are fake news reports pommeling us from a host of media outlets — television and radio, print, Facebook, Twitter, and speeches by policymakers. It’s getting more difficult to tell fact from fiction because most of us are not conditioned to question everything we see and hear — and we don’t have good tools to verify information. Now fact-checking tickertapes on some television news channels are telling us what is true or false with colored check marks; and there are fact-checking websites to visit if we take the time.
I don’t want to play the “true or false” game around today’s news. And I don’t want our children to play this game either — especially as they face the challenges of learning fact from fiction as evolving readers.
How big a problem is this for children?
According to Sam Wineburg, professor of education and history at Stanford University, it is a big problem — the majority of children in middle and even high school find it difficult to tell fake from real news. “The ability to determine what is reliable and not reliable — that is the new basic skill in our society,” he explains 
Wineburg reminds us that until recently editors and librarians played a key role in helping us sort the reliable from unreliable. But now, anyone who sits at a screen — most of us from very early ages — will take on this role.
Is this realistic for children? As early readers, they will be exposed to fanciful stories −like the story about Lyle the Crocodile who walks on his hind legs, dances, ice skates and shops at a department store in the city. They will also be exposed to informative (nonfiction) texts about crocodiles. And over time, young readers will learn to tell the difference between fantasy and factual texts.
Between the ages of three to five, children are beginning to understand the difference between make-up and reality. But there are many situations in which children as old as twelve may still have difficulty telling the difference between fantasy and reality.
In the Stanford University study of more than 7,800 middle and high schoolers across twelve states, for example, researchers found that students “struggled to distinguish ads from articles, neutral sources from biased ones, and fake accounts from real ones.” Students were asked to look at information represented in tweets, comments and articles —and most students failed to effectively evaluate the credibility of that information. The researchers found the students were “getting duped again and again.” Here are some telling examples from the study:
- Most middle schoolers could identify a traditional ad but more than 80 percent believed “sponsored content” (a paid story) was a real news story. It wasn’t clear if students even knew what sponsored content was.
- If the text looked well-presented and polished, the students believed the site was “neutral and authoritative.” Most students were not critical readers− they did not look for supporting evidence or citations.
- Most of the high school students accepted photographs as fact — they didn’t ask where a photograph came from or question its truthfulness.
- Many high school students couldn’t tell if a news source was real or fake on Facebook — they believed they were all the same.
- Even at the college level, most students didn’t suspect potential bias in a tweet from an activist group. To check for bias they would have needed to question if the tweet was based on a poll conducted by a professional polling firm, which might make it a good source; or have clicked on the link within the tweet before evaluating the accuracy of information. Students did not perform these checking functions. The researchers noted that most Stanford students could not identify the difference between a mainstream and fringe source of information.
Three of Wineburg’s conclusions should especially alarm us:
- School classrooms are not prepared to help teach children how to assess the truthfulness of information.
- “What we see is a rash of fake news going on that people pass on without thinking … and we really can’t blame young people because we’ve never taught them to do otherwise.”
- “If the children are the future, the future might be very ill-informed.”
The good news is there are some solutions — we can teach Internet users and especially children — to become detectives, to become fact checkers. And this can start with young children.
- Parents and caretakers can teach children the difference between reality and fantasy. They can help them learn that the fantasy characters on their tablets and television screens are not real and there are not monsters and ghosts lurking in the closet or under the bed – the serious nighttime fears of so many children.
- Teachers can help children determine fact from fiction as children are learning to read different types of books. For example, nonfiction often includes picture captions, tables of contents, glossaries, indexes and headings — and while all types of books typically include pictures, a nonfiction book is more likely to use photographs instead of illustrations.
- Parents, psychologists, counselors, and educators can help children and teenagers to think critically and learn to separate reality from fantasy, fact from fiction and propaganda – in movies, YouTube videos, and video games. While teenagers may well understand the difference between fantasy and reality, they may still absorb or become attached to ideas presented in films, television programs, music, and statements from celebrities that have little or no basis in reality; and they may lack sufficient experience and knowledge to sort propaganda from fact.
- Parents and teachers can teach children of all ages to question information that comes to them through our many media sources. Our children can learn to become detectives and fact checkers, clicking on links to determine the source of the information, and making judgement calls about the accuracy of the information.
If we don’t take this challenge seriously— develop techniques to separate fact from fiction — we will all be living increasingly in fantasy “screen world.” Fact-checking is the name of the new game to play with our children.
 Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile by Bernard Waber
 “Young Children Learn to Distinguish Between Fact and Fiction,” Research at University of Texas at Austin Finds. (Nov. 27, 2006). University of Texas at Austin. http://www.utexas.edu/news/2006/11/27/psychology/
E.g., students were shown a picture of deformed daises growing in a rocky field, with accompanying news story the daises were deformed due to radiation spill. This was not true but the students did not question the photograph nor, therefore, the made-up news story.
Avi Sadeh of Tel Aviv University’s School of Psychological Sciences found understanding the difference between fantasy and reality helps children overcome nighttime fears. Widen and Russell of Boston University, in “Fantasy vs. Reality: Young Children’s Understanding of Fear” suggests “that preschoolers more readily associate fantastic, nonrealistic creatures [such as ghosts and monsters] with fear.” When adults such as parents, teachers or mental health professionals teach a child to tell the difference between fact and fiction, children can more easily overcome irrational fear.
 Irony is, this source is “sponsored content” from The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, an online newspaper and former print newspaper. The newspaper was founded in 1863 as weekly Seattle Gazette, and long one of the city’s two daily newspapers, until it became an online-only publication in 2009. The Education section included sponsored link “Teaching Fiction and Nonfiction in Kindergarten Education by Demand Media” by Shelley Frost: http://education.seattlepi.com/teaching-fiction-nonfiction-kindergarten-3704.html