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October 5, 2011

Young people are gullible in the Web world: study

Nearly a sixth of young people base their opinions of a website based on its look and feel, finds report from Demos

By CBR Staff Writer

New research finds that 48 per cent of teachers have argued about conspiracy theories with their pupils. One in twenty say this happens on a weekly basis.

‘Digital natives’ (12-18 -year-olds) are often confident, but not competent Internet users, think tank Demos has warned.

Digital fluency is the ability to find and evaluate information online.  It combines ‘old’ critical thinking skills, such as source verification, with ‘new’ knowledge about how the digital world works, such as understanding search engines, said Demos.

In its new report, Truth, Lies and the Internet: A report into young people’s digital fluency, Demos said that one-in-four young people do not make any checks at all when visiting a new website. Less than 1-in-10 ask who made the site and why, said the think tank.

The research was funded by the Nominet Trust. It said that in May and July of this year, Demos conducted an online survey of primary and secondary school teachers in England and Wales about their views on their pupils’ digital fluency. Demos received 509 responses.

The study revealed that one-third of young people believe that information generated by search engines must be true and 15% base their opinions of a website on how it looks and feels to use.

Demos has said that there should be a greater focus on young people’s ‘digital fluency’ to combat the growth of conspiracy theories amongst school-age children.

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The study found that 48% of teachers surveyed report having argued about conspiracy theories with their pupils. One-in-twenty said this happens on a weekly basis.

Author of the report Jamie Bartlett said, "Too many young people are not discerning internet users.

Bartlett added, "If they can’t find the information they’re looking for, they trust the first thing they come across. They don’t fact-check the information they find.  They don’t recognise bias and propaganda, and don’t go to varied sources.

"As a result, they’re easily influenced by information they should discard.  This makes them vulnerable to false information, cons and scams.   Misinformation and conspiracy theories – like those surrounding the death of Bin Laden – are appearing in the classroom, which is something teachers, politicians and parents should be very worried about.

"We can’t teach children what to think, but we must ensure that young people can make careful, skeptical and savvy judgments about the internet content they encounter."

Nominet Trust Director Annika Small said, "At the Nominet Trust we believe that the internet is the single most powerful tool for social good. And like any tool, people need to know how to use it safely, especially young people. That is why we are pleased to support DEMOS in investigating the scale of the issue.  But it is important to avoid alarmist responses to young people’s use of the internet.

"It is impossible to universally monitor young people’s internet use. So we need to give young people the skills to navigate and interpret the internet safely, and wisely."

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