Teen surfers prey to 'Web of deception'
Over-reliance on Net has students floundering in media literacy test
By Lim Pow Hong
A CERTAIN species of octopus in the Pacific north-west lives in a tree.
Well, 34 out of 35 Singapore students who read the bogus website http://zapatopi.net/treeoctopus/ believed such a creature actually exists.
The students, aged 13 to 19, were unable to distinguish fact from fiction in a Straits Times test of media literacy among youth.
The spoof site, set up as an online hoax in 1998 but now used by institutions to test Internet literacy, fooled nearly all the 35 local students into thinking the tree octopus story was 'well-supported by scientific research' and 'factual'.
The website yielded similar results among youngsters in Connecticut, in the United States, when it was used by University of Connecticut's Neag School of Education to test levels of online literacy.
There, all the 25 seventh-graders - 12 to 13 years old - tested in one study rated the website as 'very credible'.
An over-reliance on the Internet as a source of information could explain why teens are weak at judging whether information is trustworthy.
The ST survey found that half of the teens tested were fooled by the expert opinions cited on the site and 15 were taken in by the factual way in which information on the site was written.
Commenting on these findings, SIM University's Dr Brian Lee highlighted that it takes experience to tell when scientific research is fake as 'even adults get taken in by Internet scams supported by fake scientific findings'.
Dr Lee, who has spent more than 10 years studying Internet usage and popular culture, said: 'Students are conditioned to rely on the Internet as schools encourage them to use it in their schoolwork.'
In fact, he has noticed that even among tertiary students, between 80 and 90 per cent of them would cite Wikipedia as a source in their reports. However, most older students use other sources to back up information from Wikipedia.
It seems that those who are younger lack the skills to differentiate fact from fiction. Sarah Sim, 15, a Secondary 3 student at St Nicholas Girls' School, was convinced by the 'facts and pictures' posted on the site and the scientific name the octopus had.
'The website is very professionally done with good pictures and facts and the language used is formal. That's why I believed it,' she said.
It was the same for Jurong Secondary's Bryan Lee, 15. 'The physical description of the octopus is very real and I can't tell it's fake because of the photos.'
Teens also tend to rely too heavily on group-think when it comes to assessing credibility, going with the majority to determine a site's trustworthiness.
Dr Lee said: 'If friends endorse the information, it is likely that teens will believe it too.'
But all is not lost for these teens as he believes they will become more media literate when they mature. Students will learn how to critically evaluate information when they enter tertiary institutions as they have to learn these skills to write their research papers.
However, for parents, it is a matter of concern now. Madam Lim Geok Choo, 50, and a mother of two, worries about her 11-year-old son. 'He just takes everything he reads on the Internet as correct and real. There's no filtering of information and it can get worrying for parents.'
For students to become more media literate, Dr Lee advocates media literacy education from a young age, beginning as early as primary school or before they start using the Internet.
'Students should also learn to double- check information by asking their parents and teachers,' he said. 'When they read things on the Internet that make them uncomfortable, they should check with someone they know.'
Another way is to verify information with other sources, such as the print media, which is more credible as the editing process is more rigorous.
The only teen who was not fooled by the octopus was tipped off by the suspicious hyperlinks on the site.
Bernice Leong, 15, doubted the octopus existed when she realised the hyperlinks were leading her to sites featuring unsubstantiated creatures like Bigfoot.
The Secondary 4 student from Chung Cheng High said: 'I read widely online and I have never come across this particular animal before. It really made me question the existence of this creature.'
Source: The Straits Times, September 1, 2008