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How to Talk to Your Kids About Conspiracy Theories

By Andrea Karin Nelson
June 20, 2023

From flat-earthers, to QAnon, to PizzaGate, and even the Titanic, the internet is rife with conspiracy theories — and teens are particularly susceptible to them. Read on for more information on conspiracy theories in the digital era, along with tips on talking about them with your kids. 

Are Kids More Susceptible to Conspiracy Theories?

Conspiracy theories pop up everywhere, but they have particularly problematic histories on YouTube and TikTok. This is a challenge given how much time tweens and teens spend on social media — often several hours a day. There’s also concern among some researchers about the role gaming platforms can play in spreading misinformation and conspiracy theories. 

“On social media, repetition substitutes for validation,” Russel Muirhead, a Dartmouth College professor and co-author of "A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy" told Wired in 2020. “Repetition is what breathes air into conspiracy theories, and social media is all about repetition.”

Several studies have shown 14-18 year-olds to be especially susceptible to conspiratorial thinking. The teenage years are a time when kids are looking for community and seeking significance — both of which some people find in conspiracy theories. Add this to teenagers’ still-emerging critical thinking skills, and you have the perfect breeding ground for falling prey to conspiracies. Disinformation campaigns and unmonitored algorithms take advantage of this and often directly seek out younger users on these platforms to steer them toward more misleading content.

Conspiracy Theory Warning Signs

Here are a few things that may indicate your child is engaging with conspiracy theories: 

  • Isolating from family/friends
  • Talking as if from a “script”
  • Unwillingness to discuss their views
  • Increased levels of anger and secretiveness
  • Psychological stress, paranoia, and mistrust
  • Sharing misleading content online

Prevention Is the Best Solution 

A recent study examining the relationship between social media and conspiracy theories found that the more likely a person is to believe conspiracy theories, the more social media influences their thinking. So, preventing your child from believing in conspiracy theories in general is the best way to prevent them from falling down social media conspiracy theory rabbit holes.

Here are a few actions you can take to help prevent your child from adopting a conspiracy mindset in the first place: 

Create an open environment

Allow your child to share their beliefs without fear of judgment or ridicule. Rather than scolding them for differing beliefs, encourage them to explain how their opinion was formed and then respectfully introduce other possibilities. The more they feel comfortable sharing their beliefs with you, the more of a role you can play in steering them away from conspiracy theories. 

Encourage critical thinking

Simply telling your children what to think teaches them to blindly accept what they’re told. This lack of questioning may open them up to conspiracy theories. Instead, explain why you believe what you do and how you formed those beliefs. Ask them what they think and be open if they express opinions different from your own. 

Teach media literacy

Promote evidence-based thinking with your children by showing them how to seek out credible sources. Talk through common conspiracy theories with your children to demonstrate how to spot them. 

Monitor internet use

Periodic check-ins on your child’s digital activity, as well as monitoring tools, make it more likely you’ll spot a problem with conspiracy theories early so it can be promptly addressed.  

What to Do When Your Kid Believes a Conspiracy Theory

As a parent, you can do everything possible — and your kid may still fall for a conspiracy theory. Fortunately, there are strategies you can take to help them. 

Do

  • Prioritize safety: If you’re concerned that the conspiracy theory your child is involved in could be dangerous to themselves or others, it’s important to seek professional help and/or alert law enforcement.
  • Be curious: Experts say that asking questions is more effective in combating conspiracy theories than fact-checking the person. Ask your child open-ended questions, such as why their new belief feels right and what makes it important to them. Suggest that the two of you examine videos and articles on the conspiracy theory from a variety of perspectives and then discuss them together. Rather than just stating what you think about the material, articulate your thought process and encourage them to do the same. This will encourage critical thinking and may help them see holes in the logic on their own, which is more likely to lead to them changing their opinion.
  • Find ways to connect: Your child may be turning to conspiracy theories to find belonging.  Create opportunities to connect with them around other topics and interests. Not sure where to start? Try this list of activities you can do at home.

Don’t

  • Dismiss, judge, or belittle them: If your kid feels rejected by you because of their new beliefs, it’s likely to push them further toward the fringe ideas.
  • Try to convince them they’re wrong or ignorant
    Most people’s response to being told they’re wrong about a deeply held belief is to dig in and push back. A subtler approach is more effective. 

The Bottom Line

The internet is full of conspiracy theories, and teens are particularly susceptible to them. With the right approach, you can decrease the chances of your child getting caught up in conspiracy theories and help them think critically if they do fall for one.