Teachers have to be more vigilant than ever about what their pupils can learn online, says a study of the internet's impact on children.
Called Truth, Lies and the Internet, the report argues that "the information we access and consume on the internet is central to forming our attitudes, our beliefs, our views about the world around us and our sense of who we are within it".
According to the study by think-tank Demos, young people are more likely than adults to be seduced by extremist and violent ideas, and are at risk of being radicalised by unchallenged and bogus online material. It cites the example of Anders Breivik, the Oslo-based militant charged with the massacre of more than 70 people in Norway this summer and whose 1,500-page manifesto was largely based on anti-Muslim and anti-EU blogs.
The report aimed to find out whether young people in Britain are capable of sorting the sense from the nonsense among the material they access online. Authors Jamie Bartlett and Carl Miller do not appear optimistic. "Many young people are not careful, discerning users of the internet," they conclude. "They do not apply fact-checks to the information they find. They are unable to recognise bias and propaganda and will not go to a varied number of sources."
Parents and teachers might be worried by such gloomy reading, but the authors argue that skills and knowledge have always been required to make judgments on what children should be told. It is the instant answers without source verification now provided by the internet that throw up new problems.
The research says 12 to 18-year-olds are not very good at sorting fact from fiction. "Around one in four 12 to 15-year-olds makes no checks at all when visiting a new website," the report says. "Decisions about information quality are based on site design. Only one-third of nine to 19-year-olds have been taught to judge the reliability of online information."
To the authors, this kind of ignorance is bad news for teachers. Inaccurate content, online misinformation and conspiracy theories are all now appearing in the classroom. Just over 500 teachers took part in a survey commissioned for the report, all but a handful of whom believed so-called "digital fluency" - the ability to sort fact from fiction - was an important skill to possess.
But nearly half said lessons or homework had been punctuated by pupils repeating inaccurate internet-based content that teachers regarded as deliberately misleading - such as holocaust denial packaged as historical revisionism. And nearly half said they had had arguments in class with pupils about conspiracy theories.
The authors conclude, however, that the temptation to impose a clampdown on internet use because children might find erroneous information should be avoided. Censorship is neither desirable or necessary, they add. "The task instead is to ensure that young people can make careful, sceptical and savvy judgments about the internet content they encounter."
This will allow them to root out scams, hoaxes and outright lies. But how is it to be achieved? Lessons in digital fluency would be a start, the researchers suggest. The report says that "digital judgment must be a core part of the national curriculum and teaching training".
These lessons, at a minimum, should focus on search engines, propaganda techniques, source-attribution techniques and the risks of data-sharing. But the researchers say too many schools do not teach digital fluency - something the Department for Education could, in part, rectify by ensuring these skills are taught as part of teacher-training programmes. The report also says that internet companies such as Google could join forces with the DfE to create teaching materials.
It adds that parents need to take a more active role in managing and guiding their children's online consumption and encouraging critical thinking - a suggestion that will resonate with new Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw, who recently complained that too many parents were dumping the responsibility of parenting on schools.
"Parents need to be part of any campaign and should start by becoming more familiar and confident with various aspects of internet functionality as part of their child's general education," the report says.
One reason why children might more readily accept inaccurate information is because it is anti-establishment, the Demos report suggests.
The report authors say misinformation - such as conspiracy theories about the death of Osama bin Laden - thrives because it is well presented, making it easier for children to swallow. What would normally be dismissed as junk is given an airing because it is attractively packaged as a social media-friendly product.
"Internet-borne misinformation often thrives on an anti-establishment kudos as a way for young people to assert independence of mind," the report adds.
Bartlett J. and Miller, C.
Truth, Lies and the Internet: a report into young people's digital fluency (2011). Demos.
Download the report at http:bit.lyvhk0ro.