BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — Many teenagers struggle to tell the difference between real and fake health messages online, a new study reveals. Researchers found that more than four in 10 teens (41%) are unable tell the difference between legitimate and phony online medical content.
The study comes at a time where health misinformation and disinformation continue to undermine public safety messages, such as vaccination campaigns.
“There has been an explosion of misinformation in the area of health during the COVID-19 pandemic,” says principal investigator Dr. Radomír Masaryk of Comenius University in a media release.
Dr. Masaryk explains that untrustworthy online health messages are mostly incomplete and inaccurate. They can lead people to make poor health choices, take more risks, and lose trust in government health authorities like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The study focused on teenagers, as 71 percent of this age group use the internet, making it easy for false information to filter throughout groups of children and young adults. “As adolescents are frequent users of the internet, we usually expect that they already know how to approach and appraise online information, but the opposite seems to be true,” Masaryk adds.
What does fake news look like?
The research shows that teenagers trust a website depending on the language used and its appearance. If it is from an authoritative organization, a trusted brand, or a website with business-like language, they are more likely to trust it.
The study evaluated how manipulating the format and content of health messages online effects its trustworthiness, according to teenagers. Results reveal manipulations often use superlatives, clickbait, grammar mistakes, authority appeal, and bold fonts.
A total of 300 students between 16 and 19 had to rate seven health messages on their trustworthiness. The messages focused on the benefits of eating different fruits and vegetables. Some messages were fake, some were true and unedited, and some were true but edited. The study, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, revealed that only 48 percent of students trusted the true unedited messages more than the fake ones.
Meanwhile, 41 percent couldn’t tell the difference between true and fake online health messages and 11 percent thought true unedited messages were less trustworthy than fake content. The study also reveals that teenagers could not tell the difference between true and fake messages when the content seemed plausible.
“The only version of a health message that was significantly less trusted compared to a true health message was a message with a clickbait headline,” the study author continues.
Study authors note better education needs to be in place to help teenagers navigate the online world of fake news. The research team suggests that students should have health literacy and media literacy training. Teachers also need to teach skills such as analytical thinking and scientific reason.
“Analytical thinking and scientific reasoning are skills that help distinguish false from true health messages,” Masaryk concludes.
South West News Service writer Alice Clifford contributed to this report.