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The Danger of Digital Disinformation for Children Today

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Illustration by Tim Foley

Columnist Matt Sullivan takes a look at one of the greatest dangers youth face today: disinformation streaming on their devices.

I did not make many new friends in 2020.

I don’t think that’s my fault. It just hasn’t been a “new people” kind of year. My wife and I went to exactly one social event after things went sideways—a liberally spaced, sparsely attended backyard wedding—and after the nuptials (quite lovely and well mic’d), we joined another couple around a fire pit and engaged in the kind of polite chitchat that made my throat sore from all the mask shouting.

The subject? Kids, of course. (What else do you talk about after being home with kids for eight months?) And it was going fine until he told me it was a shame that his daughters couldn’t run around the neighborhood the way he did when he was younger.

“Why not?” I asked.

“It’s just a more dangerous world,” he said.

“Uhhh, no,” I said. “It’s not.”

“What?” he shouted over the flame.

“It’s not more dangerous. It’s safer, way safer, quantifiably safer, safer by just about every metric you could imagine. Violent crime down. Child abduction down. Kids getting hit by cars when they’re playing in the street down. Everything is better.”

Left politely unsaid: “You’re basing your child-rearing techniques on bad information.”

The polite chitchat ended quickly after that. (It’s possible that I have trouble making friends not because of COVID but because I’m a jerk.)

It’s not the neighborhood creep who poses the biggest threat to my child’s long-term health and happiness. It’s a 5.5-inch piece of glass with a crystal-clear LCD display, where everything looks sharp and every bit of data carries the same weight, including the bits that come straight from QAnon and foreign agents.

But the conversation lingered with me for weeks, because I knew the gentleman with the kind-looking eyebrows isn’t alone in what he thinks. Studies show, year after year, the rate of violent crime across the country drops, but most Americans feel it’s going up.

And this is why I was not going to win a backyard argument about child safety. I might have a couple stats and some studies rattling around in my head, but what’s that against the lifetime of data he had acquired? We’re all the sum of our parts—the news articles we read, the television shows we watch, the friendships we form, the offhand advice from a fifth-grade teacher that gets stuck in our long-term memory even though we can’t remember her name. All of it, every experience, every bit of knowledge, contributes to what we believe about how the world works.

Computer coders have a simple way to describe this: “Garbage in, garbage out.” Start with bad data, end with bad data. No amount of good coding fixes bad data. No amount of logical thinking gets you to the right place when your base assumptions are wrong.
That’s why, in 2020, I’m more afraid of bad information than COVID.

It’s not like this is a new problem. I grew up having all my Halloween candy inspected by my parents for pins and poisons, despite the fact that the total number of verified incidences of candy tampering since 1959 is precisely zero.

“Oh, but there was a news story last year that …”

It was debunked.

“But I heard that …”

Illustration by Tim Foley

Debunked. They’re all debunked. It didn’t happen. It never happens. But if you’ve ever “inspected” your kids’ candy—and I definitely have inspected my kids’ candy—it’s because garbage information got into your brain somewhere along the line, probably while your parents were inspecting your candy, and now it’s part of you, like it’s part of me.

At least that myth only affects one day of the year and gives me the opportunity to palm some Crunch bars when my kids aren’t looking. But what else is in my head that’s wrong? How many of my core beliefs are based on garbage data?

And how do I protect my kids from rampant misinformation, the one true escalating threat of the digital age?

There’s more bad information out there than ever, and sure, it’s easy to blame social media, but it’s all media, all the time. It’s information overload. Our brains evolved to keep track of what was happening in our local community, and our fear responses evolved to watch for signs of local danger. How do we balance data and fear when we know more about what Florida Man is up to than our next-door neighbor?

We bought my son a phone for Christmas two years ago when he was 12. Back in my day, it was a big deal when I got a phone in my room, and the only thing it could do was let me talk to friends while my mother eavesdropped from the kitchen. Today, we hand our children a device that can unleash a firehose of information at the swipe of a finger—good data, bad data, data designed to sell, data designed to persuade or to deliberately misinform, data that has been proven to be wrong or misleading or dangerous but is still in the ether.

It’s not the neighborhood creep who poses the biggest threat to my child’s long-term health and happiness. It’s a 5.5-inch piece of glass with a crystal-clear LCD display, where everything looks sharp and every bit of data carries the same weight, including the bits that come straight from QAnon and foreign agents designed to appeal to kids like my son and make him feel more afraid and less able to trust his neighbors. Sometimes it’s so badly written you can pretty much tell what’s up, but I’m not sure that even I can recognize the really insidious stuff—and I do this for a living.

You wouldn’t hand a child a gun without safety training, but the new-phone lecture typically boils down to “Don’t crack the screen.”
But what are you going to do, take away the phone? Everything’s a phone. The laptop. The iPad. The Xbox. This is the world now.

Years ago, as a young reporter, I kept an old Robert Heinlein quote over my desk: “What are the facts? Again and again and again—what are the facts? Shun wishful thinking, ignore divine revelation, forget what ‘the stars foretell’—what are the facts, and to how many decimal places? You pilot always into an unknown future; facts are your single clue. Get the facts!”

I’m thinking of getting him a little plaque with that quote for Christmas. It will be the worst gift and I suspect it will end up in a drawer. But maybe it sticks somewhere and becomes one of the many data points that make him who he’s going to be. Maybe years from now, when faced with a friendly conversation with someone who doesn’t know what he’s talking about, my son will think, “Boy, my dad was a total weirdo, but I guess facts are important.”

Garbage in, garbage out. I wish I knew how much nongarbage I need to put in his head to offset all the rest of it. I don’t. But I’ll try to shovel it in anyway.

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