The Canadian wildfires were caused by space lasers? The U.S. government is run by lizard people? The COVID vaccines contain microchips? Nope, nope and nope. That all may seem obvious, but a surprising percentage of people believe such nonsense: an Abacus survey from June of 2022, for example, found that a quarter of Canadians think that it is possibly (14 per cent) or probably true (11 per cent) that COVID vaccines include secret chips designed to monitor and control their behaviour. Put another way, 3.3 million Canadians were pretty sure there were microchips in the vaccines and another 4.2 million were open to the idea. (To be clear: no microchips.)
It’s easy to mock these kinds of off-the-rails beliefs, but we shouldn’t. In my work as a professor and author, I’ve been researching public representations of science for decades—including how misinformation and pseudoscience are disseminated online—and I still need to remind myself to dial back the snark. People believe, share and act on harmful misinformation for complex reasons: maybe they’re under financial stress, or they’re experiencing mental health challenges, or they distrust government. But, these days, there’s also the problem of volume. Humans are bombarded with about 74 gigabytes of information every day, which is roughly equivalent to watching 16 movies. We check our phones more than 100 times a day. Plus, the incentives baked into our attention economy—likes, follows and retweets—are all rigged to encourage the sharing of questionable content. This ridiculously chaotic information environment could cause any adult to fall for things they shouldn’t.
Now, think of the children. Many kids and teens may lack both the capacity and necessary cognitive skills to wade through all the noise. A June 2023 survey from YouGov, a British market research firm, found that American kids are more susceptible to misinformation than older adults, partly due to the fact that they spend more time online and, as a result, are exposed to more bunk. To make matters worse, children and teenagers are often the specific targets of misleading content. A 2021 analysis by NewsGuard, an online tool that rates the credibility of news websites, found that kids as young as nine encounter misinformation within minutes of activating a TikTok account.
Fighting the spread of misinformation isn’t a battle that can be won quickly. It’s a problem that seems likely to intensify, thanks to the rise of artificial intelligence and the recent rollback of misinformation countermeasures on social media platforms like YouTube. Instead of just trying to curb misinformation, we need to empower children with critical thinking skills, and we need to do it now. Kids should learn these skills very early and very often: ideally in public school, starting in Grade 1—or even before then. And they should continue to learn them through university and beyond.
In terms of lesson planning, educators will need to teach kids to embrace an ethos of accuracy—to recognize that our society is increasingly filled with misleading and sometimes willfully inaccurate content. Young kids are naturally curious and full of questions about the world. We can teach them to employ those inclinations when it comes to evaluating the news. We’ll need to teach them to pause and consider the data used to support a claim. (Lesson one: a meme, scary anecdote or TikTok rant is not solid evidence!) We’ll also need to instruct them on the role of biases, including our own, when interpreting and presenting facts. All of us are guilty of confirmation bias, to some degree—that is, clinging to facts that confirm our existing beliefs.
As for inspiration, Canada can look to a country like Finland. There, educators start teaching critical thinking skills in primary school, using games, images and even fairy tales to introduce concepts like lies, hoaxes and fact-checking. This educational policy, which ramped up around 2015, arose as a response to the rising disinformation campaigns flowing into Finland via Moscow. Teachers in some Finnish primary classrooms illustrate the value of critical thinking with a story about a wily fox that tries to trick its victims. They have slightly older kids play Sherlock Holmes to verify claims. It’s no surprise that Finland is consistently ranked at the top of countries most resistant to misinformation—most recently in a January report by Bulgaria’s Open Society Institute.
In Uganda, meanwhile, a 2017 experiment involving 120 schools found that teaching basic science literacy skills to 10-to-12-year-olds—for example, not to rely on testimonials and anecdotes—boosted students’ abilities to assess claims about unproven health treatments. Other studies have shown that similar initiatives can make people more foolproof across their entire lifetimes.
Here in Canada, misinformation-busting initiatives are starting to emerge. Last spring, CBC Kids News released a Minecraft map called “Reporting 101: Misinformation.” The game, which can be used in the classroom, sends players on a global search for evidence to get to the bottom of a rumour about a cancelled summer vacation. For my part, I helped create an online science literacy course at the University of Alberta. It’s intended, as psychology researcher and host Claire Scavuzzo notes, to build the skill of thinking scientifically—to be skeptical and ask questions. The class is free, and any Canadian can enrol, but it’s also designed to be integrated directly into school curricula.
The good news is that teaching the art of critical thinking has the advantage of being politically neutral. In an era when decisions about what we should (and shouldn’t) teach our children in elementary school can quickly become polarized—think critical race theory, gender and sexuality, and even climate change—a program that emphasizes building skills over the specifics of what is right or wrong is more widely palatable. I would hope that giving young Canadian citizens the tools to discern facts from harmful junk, and to derive their own evidence-informed opinions, is an educational policy that everyone can get behind.
We are in the midst of a worldwide knowledge crisis, the results of which will reverberate well into the future. Recently, the head of the U.S. FDA suggested that COVID-related misinformation had contributed to the decline in life expectancy in America, which hit a 25-year low in 2021. Back in June, Richard Wagner, Canada’s chief justice, linked misinformation to the global assault on the rule of law. On a personal level, I’ve listened to and felt the rage of those space laser, lizard people, microchip voices for years. It’s exhausting, and countering them can sometimes feel hopeless. Still, I often get to engage with students and members of the public about misinformation—everyone seems to get the urgency of helping kids discern fact from fiction. If we do, they’ll come of age in a culture of accuracy, which will benefit their health and our democracy for generations to come.
Timothy Caulfieldholds a Canada Research Chair in health law and policy at the University of Alberta. He’s also the author of Relax: A Guide to Everyday Health Decisions with More Facts and Less Worry.