The smartphone is the baby pacifier of the Information Age. And, just like the traditional pacifier’s unintended dental consequences, the smartphone pacifier has its own downside. When we give kids access to media before teaching them media literacy, they don’t know how to navigate the information landscape, and end up tripping over the pitfalls of the Internet, such as fake news.

As someone who volunteers with middle schoolers, I see this problem on a regular basis. Middle schoolers are on their phones constantly, but they don’t have the skills to distinguish between fact and fiction on their many newsfeeds.

One conversation during an early session of Straub Middle School’s Journalism Club proved this point. I brought newspapers from the high school with me, so the kids could identify the characteristics of journalistic writing.

One student said of the news stories, “They all have clickbait headlines.” He pointed toward a story in our print newspaper, which I’d written about an alumna who was participating in a forestry internship. The headline was, “Alumni Spotlight: Exploring a career in the natural world.”

“That’s not clickbait,” I told him. “That’s what the story is about.”

“No. It’s clickbait,” he insisted, turning his attention back to his phone.

Many would chalk this up to immature reasoning skills. But gullibility isn’t a matter of intelligence; it’s a matter of education. We gave this student access to the Internet before we gave him the media literacy skills to distinguish between an actual headline and a clickbait headline. That’s our fault, not his.

A November 2016 Stanford University study of middle school, high school and college students’ media literacy skills found that he is not alone. According to their data, 80 percent of middle school students are unable to distinguish between an actual news story and “sponsored content.” And while we might attribute that statistic solely to age, the results are just as mortifying with their high school and collegiate counterparts.

Instead of wringing our hands over the caveats of freedom of speech, we need to give students the skills to decipher the information landscape for themselves. Fake news depends on those who believe it. If we educate the incoming generation about how to identify fake news, the problem will be pulled up by the roots.

Originally published in The Oregonian/