Kids Believe Literally Anything They Read Online, Even Tree Octopuses

Anyone can publish anything on the Internet. Despite that, children aren't taught how to evaluate the reliability of information they read there. As demonstrated by a recent study, this is true to a shocking extent, and there may be dire implications for the future of today's young people.

For their study, Donald Leu, professor of education at the University of Connecticut, and his colleagues selected 53 of the best readers from seventh grade classes in low-income school districts in South Carolina and Connecticut. They made the kids believe they were helping someone else assess the reliability of information on a Web page. "They were never told the information was true; they were asked to evaluate if it was true," Leu told Life's Little Mysteries.

The page in question was devoted to an animal called the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus. Yes, a tree octopus an aquatic animal that allegedly lives in trees. For an unknown reason, in 1998, someone named Lyle Zapato created an extensive page describing the habitat, endangerment status, threats, and recent sightings of this creature, despite the fact that, obviously, it does not actually exist.

But the joke was not at all obvious to members of the supposedly Internet-savvy generation: 87.5 percent of the seventh-grade subjects judged the Web page to be "reliable." More than half went so far as to call it "very reliable." The small number of students who judged the page unreliable all came from the same school, and had just participated in a lesson teaching them to be suspicious of information online, in which this very tree octopus site was used as an example.

In other words, of the kids who were reading about tree octopuses for the first time, all of them fell for it.

"We assume that just because these kids are sophisticated in the area of pop culture and navigating Facebook, they'll be good at critically evaluating other information online, too. But actually they don't have very many skills at all," Leu said.

According to Leu, it's not that kids today are more gullible or dumber than they were generations ago; they're just not receiving any Internet-based education in schools. Because teachers and administrators are anxious to avoid cases of cyber-bullying, as well as plain old Facebook time-wasting, many schools don't let kids online. "All their information comes from textbooks, which are screened, and all controversial issues are gotten rid of, so kids learn to assume what they're reading is true."

The problem is especially serious in poorer districts, Leu told us, where schools are under pressure to teach to states' standardized tests. Those don't test online critical evaluation skills. According to Leu, a cultural shift will be necessary to change that: "Right now, the people who make the policies don't lead online lives themselves." When those in charge at the highest level are frequent Internet users, they may integrate Internet fluency into state curricula.

But this generation of youths is getting skipped, and Leu believes the biggest impact will be on the economy. "Globally, workplaces are shifting to the Internet being used as a critical source of information. If we don't raise a generation of people who are prepared to think critically online, then they're not going to be effective in the work place."

"The other big implication is for politics," Leu said. "As Jefferson once said, our democracy rises or falls based on having informed citizens at the ballot box."

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Follow Natalie Wolchover on Twitter @nattyover

Natalie Wolchover

Natalie Wolchover was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012 and is currently a senior physics writer and editor for Quanta Magazine. She holds a bachelor's degree in physics from Tufts University and has studied physics at the University of California, Berkeley. Along with the staff of Quanta, Wolchover won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory writing for her work on the building of the James Webb Space Telescope. Her work has also appeared in the The Best American Science and Nature Writing and The Best Writing on Mathematics, Nature, The New Yorker and Popular Science. She was the 2016 winner of the  Evert Clark/Seth Payne Award, an annual prize for young science journalists, as well as the winner of the 2017 Science Communication Award for the American Institute of Physics.