Are children vulnerable to conspiracy theories? Prevailing thought is to not think about it, as we prefer to associate such flights of mental fancy with adults.
Alarmingly, however, children are susceptible, according to a study in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology. In fact, children are most inclined to begin believing in conspiracy theories around the age of 14.
Researchers attributed, in large part, students’ early attraction to unsubstantiated information with their immersion in social media, where varied stories flow freely.
Social media does indeed connect students to these stories. But, research increasingly shows that it is students’ growing inability to decide for themselves what is true—and our schools’ failure to teach them how to make that determination—that makes them vulnerable to buying in.
Should this emerging data worry us? Absolutely, and here is why.
Conspiracy Theories Carry Negative Consequences
Conspiracy theories are, as the name describes, theories. They are unsubstantiated explanations for why something has happened, typically based on the assumption that nefarious actions are at the root of what is going on.
This is not to say that all such theories are false. But, historically, most have been disproven long before they could be substantiated. However, this does not always occur before they have woven themselves into mainstream awareness and acceptance, and taken a toll on the believers.
Our British researchers, who in 2021 studied nearly 1,000 UK students ages 11 to 18, said theirs was the first such study to involve students. Thus, they could not assess the actual short- or long-term impact on youngsters who believe in conspiracy theories. However, in adults, they outlined a string of “negative consequences,” including increased disconnection from reality, disengagement from others, and a higher tendency for conflict and prejudice, especially with those not aligned with their thinking.
Teens Lured by Social Media, Lack of Rational Thinking, Cognitive Biases
“One contributor could be social media use, which is known to be prevalent amongst adolescents and is likely to shape young people’s beliefs about the world,” the researchers wrote.
“Furthermore, we know that young people prefer to get their news from social media as opposed to traditional news and that the majority of young people do not consider the credibility of news stories on social media. Since social media are rife with conspiracy theories, this could be the perfect storm for conspiracy beliefs to flourish in younger populations.”
Researchers also say that teenagers are more susceptible because conspiracy theories play into our emotions, and teens tend to react emotionally instead of responding rationally to situations, especially to situations they find stressful.
This is even more alarming when you consider another study showed that 48 percent of students aged 8-17 are seeing misleading content every day, with more than one in 10 students seeing it more than six times a day. The survey also showed that 43 percent of young people have noticed their friends and peers sharing misleading content (such as fake news) online and that seeing misleading information left students feeling annoyed, upset, sad, angry, attacked, or scared.
The 2020 study was conducted by Censuswide, a research-consultancy group based in the UK, and was funded by the Safer Internet Center, which is working to increase internet safety.
This is Yet Another Cry for Decision Education
Both the influence of social media and the impulse to react can be held in check if students are taught how. We call it Decision Education. Through it, students learn to think rationally—to calmly review a situation, approach it with an open mind, and prioritize truth seeking.
Through Decision Education, students also learn to recognise and resist cognitive biases, some of which influence our belief in fanciful explanations, including confirmation bias (focusing on information that supports our beliefs) and belief perseverance (becoming more attached to a belief even after seeing contradictory information).