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Developing Online Discernment

The internet is a powerful resource that can provide a wellspring of data and information to users, however, it is also home to a lot of misleading articles, internet hoaxes and fake news.

Developing critical thinking and online discernment is an important skill that all young people need to develop from a young age, especially being born into a time when most people look to technology for immediate answers.

Internet Hoaxes

A hoax is a deliberate lie designed to seem truthful. Learn about online resources that will help you recognise and debunk hoaxes.

Hoaxes are nothing new, but digital technology, social media and the high-speed news cycle have combined to make the spread of misinformation faster and broader. Rumours of dangerous new viral challenges surface a couple of times a year, and they are generally unfounded. Parents and teachers should be aware of the possibility that a shocking news item about children and the internet could be a hoax.

There are strategies and online resources to help you identify and respond to a potential hoax.

Identifying a hoax

Hoaxes, by their nature, are difficult to identify. They often rely on parents’ protective instincts when it comes to their children, and are designed to bypass our critical thinking. If you come across a warning on social media about a dangerous viral challenge, take a moment. Ask yourself two questions before sharing:

  • Who benefits if I share this now?
  • What do I not know about this?

If you cannot answer both of these questions to your own satisfaction, take the time to do some research. Hoaxes are generally started by people who are after viral content, and an easy way to get information spread quickly is to encourage panic.

Websites like Snopes are an excellent resource for identifying hoaxes. Like urban legends, internet hoaxes are often repeated, so it is worth checking to see if this particular story has been told before.

Responding to a hoax

Hoaxes thrive when they are spread quickly and without consideration. If you encounter a hoax through social media, the best thing to do is wait. The police or your school may issue a warning on the story, but unless that story contains corroborating evidence that you have not encountered, it is possible that they are responding to the same false story.

Immediately asking your child or students about the story will do more to spread the hoax than waiting until you have more facts. If the story has become big enough that most people are talking about it, you should discuss it with your child or students in a calm and non-judgmental manner.

Developing critical thinking skills

Not all information is trustworthy, and some sources of information are intended to mislead or confuse people. For this reason, it is important that children and young people have the critical thinking skills to analyse information and evaluate its authenticity.

Critical thinking does not mean criticising people or ideas. Critical thinking is an important skill in an information rich world that helps children and young people examine new pieces of information in order to make an informed judgement on an issue (Young and eSafe, Office of the eSafety Commissioner 2018).

Developing critical thinking skills

Children and young people should always consider and question the relevance, accuracy and reliability of any content they find online. Peter Ellerton (Lecturer in Critical Thinking, The University of Queensland) suggests that students need to master 4 key concepts to develop their critical thinking abilities:

  • Argumentation – the process of intellectual engagement with an issue and opponent with the intention of developing a justified position.
  • Logic – the rules of deduction and induction used to proceed from premises or evidence to conclusion.
  • Psychology – an awareness of how our minds actually work, especially the effect of cognitive biases and prior beliefs.
  • The nature of science – knowledge of basic statistics and the difference between hypothesis, theory and law.

Further suggestions for developing critical thinking skills

Here are some suggestions for developing critical thinking skills in children and young people:

  • Learn more about developing critical thinking skills with the Office of the eSafety Commissioner’s Young and eSafe units of work.
  • For practical advice on evaluating information, visit What are credible sources?

ABC News offers advice on how to spot fake news and fact-check bogus stories.

Some other great Blogs which could help:
– What is Bullying? And How to Stop It 
– Australia’s Online Laws 

– Before you post anything! HALT

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About Author

Jonny has spent the last 10 years in youth work, speaking and interviewing counsellors on best practices.

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