The Dangers of Teen Exposure to Online Misinformation


“There is a simple way to package information that, under the right circumstances, can make it
irresistible. All you have to do is find it.”

–Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference

In The Tipping Point, a book that we’ve referenced a few times because of its social impact and the research behind it, Malcolm Gladwell talks about how ideas spread. One way that ideas spread nowadays are through online misinformation.

Using the latest research in sociology and psychology, this article will help you understand the dangers of teen exposure to online misinformation. It will provide examples of when teens were exposed to online misinformation and how that impacted them and their families. It will also provide information on how to help your troubled teen.

The Benefits and Harms of the Digital World

There are many benefits and harms to the online world. Being aware of these harms and benefits can help you understand how you can help your teen.

The benefits of the digital world for teens:

  • Being exposed to a variety of viewpoints. The online world includes different news agencies with different perspectives, as well as individuals with various views. That means that learning and growth are possible.
  • Being able to share their views. Many teens are trying to figure out their identity, so expressing their views can help them become more assertive and comfortable.
  • It helps your teen with digital literacy because being able to navigate the online world and the vast amount of information available on it is essential to your teen’s ability to succeed in the 21st century.

But that doesn’t mean that the online world doesn’t have negatives.

The harms of the digital world on teens:

  • Content is often filtered, leading to what’s known as an echo chamber. Different applications and browsers will only share content based on the content similar to it that you’ve liked or viewed before. So, this means that your pre-existing views and opinions are being reinforced rather than challenged.
  • Making friends online is not always safe. As the examples we’re going to explain below will demonstrate, individuals found online do not always have the best intentions for your child.
  • Content online can be misleading and cause more confusion for your teen. It can lead to your teen feeling isolated, paranoid, and confused about who to trust.

Online Misinformation: Where Confusion, Vulnerability, and Hatred Meet

Online misinformation is information that is false and misleading. It can appear in many different forms. As an example, here’s how two hate groups have used online misinformation to recruit vulnerable and troubled teens, especially troubled boys.

White Supremacists: Recruiting and Causing Mass Hysteria

With the rise of social media, white supremacists have used different platforms to propagate their views. For example, the Dutch far-right shooter in the 2011 Norway attacks was influenced not only by books but also by far-right activists on social media and online.

Likewise, the El-Paso Shooter in 2019 targeted Latino shoppers in Texas was influenced by online white supremacists claiming that there is an ongoing “Latino Invasion.”

Both shooters wrote a manifesto that they published online. This means that online recruiting is seen as a viable way of gaining followers, especially by hate groups like white supremacists. That is why hate groups publish content online before or after mass shootings. It is seen as a way of initiating other members into their hateful ideas.

ISIS and Al-Qaeda

While ISIS and Al-Qaeda may seem far away, their ability to recruit is just one click away. A recent example of two young adults who were susceptible to hate messages are Muhammed Dakallah and Jaelyn De’Shaun Young.

These two students joining ISIS is especially troubling because they were college students, high-performing, and very social and outgoing in Young’s case. Young, a convert to Islam from Christianity, was even willing to travel to the Middle East to support ISIS.

These different examples of hate groups recruiting young people, especially troubled boys, show that online misinformation is rampant and dangerous.

How You Can Help Your Teen With Online Misinformation

Because of this danger, here are some ways to help you and your teen with online misinformation.

Talk to your teen about their online presence

Talk to them about what kind of content they find interesting and the types of individuals and groups they follow. Talk to them about how they can use their online presence for good and what they look like.

During the conversation, provide examples of when people have misused their online presence to harm others. While talking to them, “good” content might seem cheesy or pointless. You will need to remind yourself and your child that one of the goals of having a social media presence is to provide quality content, not misleading content.

Model the behaviors and ideas that you would like to see

If your teen hears you talking about the latest conspiracy theory, then they will be curious as well. So, remember, your teen is listening to and watching what you do and not just what you would like them to do or think.

Talk to them about where you stand

Remember, your teen will not necessarily have the same views as you. Your job as a parent is to let them know where you stand on things, being upfront about your boundaries.

Just remember in the end, it’s up to your teen to make their own choices.

Consider a residential treatment center

This is especially true if your teen has already gone down the rabbit hole of misinformation and is not interested in different viewpoints or being challenged. At a treatment center, mental health and behavioral health practitioners can find out the reasons why your troubled teen is drawn to specific ideas.

Again, don’t wait for an outside person to do the job that only you can do as a parent. Seek the help you can get from a center and use the tools you have by talking to your teen.

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