Classroom Technology

Teens Are ‘Digital Natives,’ But More Susceptible to Online Conspiracies Than Adults

By Arianna Prothero — August 24, 2023 6 min read
Conceptual image of hand holding phone with words overlaying it such as conspiracy theories, fake, and propaganda.
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Today’s teens have been raised on smartphones—literally. The first iPhone came out 16 years ago, so many teens could have been swiping on (or at) their parents’ smartphones since infancy.

But while this age group of so-called “digital natives” may text at the speed of light and have a seemingly innate ability to outfox parental controls placed on digital devices, they are not so savvy when it comes to distinguishing fact from fiction online.

In fact, teens are decidedly more susceptible than adults to online conspiracies, according to new survey results released by the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a research and advocacy nonprofit. And the more time teens spend on social media, the more likely they are to believe in online conspiracies.

Six in 10 teens, ages 13-17, agreed with at least four conspiracy theories listed in the survey, compared to 49 percent of adults. Among teens who spend a lot of time on social media, nearly 7 in 10 of them said they believed at least four conspiracies.

These findings track with earlier research on teens’ susceptibility to online conspiracies and misinformation, and they underscore how important it is for schools to teach digital media literacy skills.

John Cain, a high school history teacher, says teens are constantly online—and saturated in disinformation.

“Our students are quick consumers of information,” said Cain, who teaches at Copenhagen Central School in upstate New York. “They don’t want to take the time to verify what they are seeing, and we know that they are seeing the same things across multiple platforms, and so it becomes internalized.”

Academically high-achieving students are every bit as susceptible to falling for a conspiracy as their peers who struggle academically, Cain has found. In his experience, the students who are most vulnerable to believing online conspiracies are those who are getting exposed to them at home from their family members, as well as through their own online habits.

Among some of the most common conspiracies circulating on the internet, teens expressed the most support or belief in the idea of a “deep state” controlling the government, anti-vaccine messaging, and “groomer” conspiracies that allege transgender activists are indoctrinating children. For every conspiracy statement presented to teens in the survey, those who reported spending four hours or more a day on social media were more likely to say they believed in the conspiracy.

Definitions

Conspiracy: Anti-vaccine. Polled statement: The dangers of vaccines are being hidden by the medical establishment.



Conspiracy: Antisemitism. Polled statement: Jewish people have a disproportionate amount of control over the media, politics, and the economy.



Conspiracy: Incel. Polled statement: Some men are destined to be alone because of their looks.



Conspiracy: Covid-19. Polled statement: The coronavirus is being used to force a dangerous and unnecessary vaccine on the public.



Conspiracy: Climate change. Polled Statement: Humans are not the main cause of global temperature increases.



Conspiracy: Deep state. Polled statement: There is a "deep state" embedded in the government that operates in secret and without oversight.



Conspiracy: Groomer. Polled statement: Trans people and activists are promoting their lifestyle to children in an attempt to indoctrinate them.



Conspiracy: Great replacement. Polled statement: Mass migration of people into the western world is a deliberate policy of multiculturalism and part of a scheme to replace white people.

On at least one topic, climate change, the data in the Center for Countering Digital Hate report conflicts with findings from the EdWeek Research Center. In that nationally representative survey, conducted with the international polling firm Ipsos only 15 percent of 14- to 18-year-olds said that either climate change was not real or that it was real but not caused by human activity.

Today’s middle and high school students have grown up with the internet, but that doesn’t mean they are innately better at identifying false information, said Daniel Vargas-Campos, a senior program manager at Common Sense Media who specializes in digital well-being and citizenship.

“I actually think that the term ‘digital native’ can be misleading because the digital landscape that kids are navigating is radically different than anything any of us older people have been exposed to,” he said. “When we hear the word conspiracy theory, you think QAnon and Facebook and it’s a very 2016-ish understanding of how misinformation takes place online. Teens are facing the era of algorithmically driven media—and the rise of TikTok has shifted the landscape.”

Teens get most of their information on current events from TikTok and YouTube, said Vargas-Campos. Users often share videos about major news events as they’re happening from on the ground—such as a natural disaster or from the war in Ukraine, which can make teens feel like they’re viewing unfiltered events straight from the source. But those videos can be doctored, said Vargas-Campos.

Influencers on those platforms are also a major source of news for teens, he said. The format feels more personable: the face of a favorite influencer talking directly into the camera from home feels authentic, but that can lead viewers into a false sense of trust, said Vargas-Campos.

“Platforms like TikTok and YouTube are personality driven,” said Vargas-Campos. “A personality is the driver of the content, the audience will tend to build a connection to that personality, and that can impact whether or not you question the information that they’re sharing.”

This digital ecosystem, he said, makes it difficult to develop the skills necessary to identify and filter out conspiracies, propaganda, and misinformation. Digital literacy instruction must relate to what teens are seeing online today. Teachers should encourage students to critically reflect on the information and sources they consume.

See also

Photo of teacher helping students with their tablet computers.
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Teens also must learn how to turn down the spigot on their online information intake, a strategy called critical ignoring, said Vargas-Campos.

“In the infodemic, you’re overwhelmed with all kinds of information all the time,” he said. “It’s about mindfully choosing who you pay attention to, what type of information you ignore, and where you want to invest your attention. Because not all that you see on TikTok is worthy of your attention.”

While teens may struggle to regulate their social media use and differentiate good information from bad, they overwhelmingly recognize that what happens online connects to the real world.

In the Center for Countering Digital Hate survey, teens were more likely than adults to say that what happens online can have real-world consequences.

Eighty-three percent of teens agreed with the statement that “online harms have a serious real-world impact” compared with 68 percent of adults. Around three-quarters of teens and adults say that social media platforms should be more transparent in how their algorithms work and how they monetize user data.

Teens see social media companies, lawmakers, and users as being about equally responsible for online harms.

A movement to hold social media companies responsible for online harms—such as higher rates of anxiety and depression among young users—has been growing. A number of school districts have recently filed lawsuits against some of the most popular social media platforms, claiming their apps are hurting students’ mental health and making it harder for schools to educate them and provide them the services they need.

Arkansas and Utah both passed laws this year restricting children and teens access to social media apps, and similar legislation was introduced in nine other states.

Federal lawmakers have introduced legislation to require parental consent for minors to use social media apps and to bar social media companies from using algorithms to recommend content to young users.

But Cain, the high school teacher, is skeptical of these efforts. He said the most viable solution can be found in the classroom— and not just in civics or government, but in other classes such as English or science.

Kids will always find a way around app and social media restrictions, he said.

“This is their technology and they’re going to be better at it than any government—state or federal—can be, so it really needs to come down to the education piece,” he said. “We need to make sure that we are working with students to give them resources to interact with their digital world in a positive way.”

The findings from the Center for Countering Hate survey are based on a weighted sample of 1,012 13- to 17-year-olds surveyed in March. The organization also asked survey respondents to weigh in on aspects of a regulatory framework that CCDH developed and is advocating for lawmakers in the U.S. and Europe to adopt.

The Center for Countering Digital Hate was recently sued by X Corp, the parent company of X, formerly known as Twitter, claiming that the nonprofit’s research made baseless claims that harmed Twitter’s business.

CCDH countered in statements to the news media that Twitter owner, Elon Musk, is attempting to stifle independent research.

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