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Teens struggle to differentiate between real and fake health messages online

Researchers found that almost half of teens couldn’t tell the difference between true and fake online medical content.

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By Alice Clifford via SWNS

Teenagers struggle to tell the difference between real and fake health messages online, suggests a new study.

Researchers found that almost half of teens (41 percent) couldn’t tell the difference between true and fake online medical content.

The study comes at a time when health misinformation and disinformation are a serious concern.

Study principal investigator Dr. Radomír Masaryk, of Comenius University in Slovakia, said: “There has been an explosion of misinformation in the area of health during the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Dr. Masaryk said 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 health authorities like the NHS.

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.

Dr. Masaryk said: “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.”

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 the business-like language they are more likely to trust it.

The study evaluated how manipulating the format and content of health messages online affect their trustworthiness according to teenagers.

Manipulations could be using superlatives, clickbait, grammar mistakes, authority appeal and bold fonts.

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A total of 300 students aged 16 to 19 had to rate seven health messages on their trustworthiness. The messages were about 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 48 percent of students trusted true unedited messages more than fake ones.

Yet 41 percent of teenagers 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 reveals that teenagers could not tell the difference between true and fake messages when the content seemed plausible.

Dr. Masaryk said: “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 results show that better education needs to be in place to help teenagers navigate the online world of fake news.

The research team suggest that students should have health literacy and media literacy training. Teachers also need to teach skills such as analytical thinking and scientific reasoning.

Dr. Masaryk added: “Analytical thinking and scientific reasoning are skills that help distinguish false from true health messages.”

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