How to Talk to Your Kids About Conspiracy Theories

By Andrea 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. 


  • 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.


  • 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.

Three kids using smartphones

As a parent, you want your child to surround themselves with good influences. That’s true not only for who they spend time with in real life, but also for the people and ideas they’re exposed to on social media. 

If you or your child are concerned about the content appearing in their feed, one beneficial step you can take is to help them reset their social media algorithm. Here’s how to reset your child’s algorithm on TikTok, Instagram, and other platforms.

What is a social media algorithm?

Social media algorithms are the complex computations that operate behind the scenes of every social media platform to determine what each user sees. 

Everything on your child’s social media feed is likely the result of something they liked, commented on, or shared. (For a more comprehensive explanation, check out our Parent’s Guide to Social Media Algorithms.)

Social media algorithms have a snowball effect. For example, if your child “likes” a cute dog video, they’ll likely see more of that type of content. However, if they search for topics like violence, adult material, or conspiracy theories, their feed can quickly be overwhelmed with negative content.

Therefore, it’s vital that parents actively examine and reset their child’s algorithm when needed, and also teach them the skills to evaluate it for themselves. 

Research clearly demonstrates the potentially negative impacts of social media on tweens and teens. How it affects your child depends a lot on what’s in their feed. And what’s in their feed has everything to do with algorithms. 

Talking to your child about their algorithm

Helping your child reset their algorithm is a wonderful opportunity to teach them digital literacy. Explain to them why it’s important to think critically about what they see on social media, and what they do on the site influences the content they’re shown. 

Here are some steps you can take together to clean up their feed: 

Start with their favorite app

Resetting all of your child’s algorithms in one fell swoop can be daunting. Instead, pick the app they use the most and tackle that first. 

Scroll through with them

If your kiddo follows a lot of accounts, you might need to break this step into multiple sessions. Pause on each account they follow and have them consider these questions:

  • Do this person’s posts usually make me feel unhappy or bad about myself? 
  • Does this account make me feel like I need to change who I am? 
  • Do I compare my life, body, or success with others when I view this account? 

If the answer “yes” to any of these questions, suggest they unfollow the account. If they’re hesitant — for example, if they’re worried unfollowing might cause friend problems — they can instead “hide” or “mute” the account so they don’t see those posts in their feed. 

Encourage interaction with positive accounts 

On the flip side, encourage your child to interact with accounts that make them feel good about themselves and portray positive messages. Liking, commenting, and sharing content that lifts them up will have a ripple effect on the rest of their feed. 

Dig into the settings 

After you’ve gone through their feed, show your child how to examine their settings. This mostly influences sponsored content, but considering the problematic history of advertisers marketing to children on social media, it’s wise to take a look.  

Every social media app has slightly different options for how much control users have over their algorithm. Here's what you should know about resetting the algorithm on popular apps your child might use.

How to reset Instagram algorithm

  • Go to Settings > Ads > Ad topics. You can view a list of all the categories advertisers can use to reach your child. Tap “See less” for ads you don’t want to see. 
  • Go to your child’s profile > tap Following > scroll through the categories to view (and unfollow) the accounts that appear most in your child’s feed.
  • Tap the Explore tab in the bottom navigation bar and encourage your child to search for new content that matches their interests, like cooking, animals, or TV shows.

How to reset TikTok algorithm

  • Go to Settings > Content Preferences > Refresh your For You feed. This is like a factory reset of your child’s TikTok algorithm.
  • Go to Settings > Free up space. Select “Clear” next to Cache. This will remove any saved data that could influence your child’s feed.
  • As your child uses TikTok, point out the “Not Interested” feature. Tap and hold a video to pull up this button. Tapping “Not interested” tells TikTok’s algorithm not to show your child videos they don’t like. 

How to reset YouTube algorithm

  • Go to Library > View All. Scroll back through everything your child has watched. You can manually remove any videos that your child doesn’t want associated with their algorithm — just then tap the three dots on the right side, then select Remove from watch history.
  • Go to Settings > History & Privacy. Tap “Clear watch history” for a full reset of your child’s YouTube algorithm.

What to watch for

To get the best buy-in and help your child form positive long-term content consumption habits, it’s best to let them take the lead in deciding what accounts and content they want to see. 

At the same time, kids shouldn't have to navigate the internet on their own. Social platforms can easily suggest content and profiles that your child isn't ready to see. A social media monitoring app, such as BrightCanary, can alert you if your child encounters something concerning.

Here are a few warning signs you should watch out for as you review your child's feed: 

If you spot any of this content, it’s time for a longer conversation to assess your child’s safety. You may decide it’s appropriate to insist they unfollow a particular account. And if what you see on your child’s feed makes you concerned for their mental health or worried they may harm themselves or others, consider reaching out to a professional.  

In short 

Algorithms are the force that drives everything your child sees on social media and can quickly cause their feed to be overtaken by negative content. Regularly reviewing your child’s feed with them and teaching them skills to control their algorithm will help keep their feed positive and minimize some of the negative impacts of social media. 

Woman smiling at phone while sitting on couch

Just by existing as a person in 2023, you’ve probably heard of social media algorithms. But what are algorithms? How do social media algorithms work? And why should parents care? 

At BrightCanary, we’re all about giving parents the tools and information they need to take a proactive role in their children’s digital life. So, we’ve created this guide to help you understand what social media algorithms are, how they impact your child, and what you can do about it. 

What is a social media algorithm? 

Social media algorithms are complex sets of rules and calculations used by platforms to prioritize the content that users see in their feeds. Each social network uses different algorithms. The algorithm on TikTok is different from the one on YouTube. 

In short, algorithms dictate what you see when you use social media and in what order. 

Why do social media sites use algorithms?

Back in the Wild Wild West days of social media, you would see all of the posts from everyone you were friends with or followed, presented in chronological order. 

But as more users flocked to social media and the amount of content ballooned, platforms started introducing algorithms to filter through the piles of content and deliver relevant and interesting content to keep their users engaged. The goal is to get users hooked and keep them coming back for more.  

Algorithms are also hugely beneficial for generating advertising revenue for platforms because they help target sponsored content. 

How do algorithms work? 

Each platform uses its own mix of factors, but here are some examples of what influences social media algorithms:

Friends/who you follow 

Most social media sites heavily prioritize showing users content from people they’re connected with on the platform. 

TikTok is unique because it emphasizes showing users new content based on their interests, which means you typically won’t see posts from people you follow on your TikTok feed. 

Your activity on the site

With the exception of TikTok, if you interact frequently with a particular user, you’re more likely to see their content in your feed. 

The algorithms on TikTok, Instagram Reels, and Instagram Explore prioritize showing you new content based on the type of posts and videos you engage with. For example, the more cute cat videos you watch, the more cute cat videos you’ll be shown. 

YouTube looks at the creators you interact with, your watch history, and the type of content you view to determine suggested videos. 

The popularity of a post or video 

The more likes, shares, and comments a post gets, the more likely it is to be shown to other users. This momentum is the snowball effect that causes posts to go viral. 

Why should parents care about algorithms? 

There are ways social media algorithms can benefit your child, such as creating a personalized experience and helping them discover new things related to their interests. But the drawbacks are also notable — and potentially concerning. 

Since social media algorithms show users more of what they seem to like, your child's feed might quickly become overwhelmed with negative content. Clicking a post out of curiosity or naivety, such as one promoting a conspiracy theory, can inadvertently expose your child to more such content. What may begin as innocent exploration could gradually influence their beliefs.

Experts frequently cite “thinspo” (short for “thinspiration”), a social media topic that aims to promote unhealthy body goals and disordered eating habits, as another algorithmic concern.

Even though most platforms ban content encouraging eating disorders, users often bypass filters using creative hashtags and abbreviations. If your child clicks on a thinspo post, they may continue to be served content that promotes eating disorders

Social media algorithm tips for parents

Although social media algorithms are something to monitor, the good news is that parents can help minimize the negative impacts on their child. 

Here are some tips:

Keep watch

It’s a good idea to monitor what the algorithm is showing your child so you can spot any concerning trends. Regularly sit down with them to look at their feed together. 

You can also use a parental monitoring service to alert you if your child consumes alarming content. BrightCanary is an app that continuously monitors your child’s social media activity and flags any concerning content, such as photos that promote self-harm or violent videos — so you can step in and talk about it.

Stay in the know

Keep up on concerning social media trends, such as popular conspiracy theories and internet challenges, so you can spot warning signs in your child’s feed. 

Communication is key

Talk to your child about who they follow and how those accounts make them feel. Encourage them to think critically about the content they consume and to disengage if something makes them feel bad. 

In short

Algorithms influence what content your child sees when they use social media. Parents need to be aware of the potentially harmful impacts this can have on their child and take an active role in combating the negative effects. 

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TikTok has replaced local malls as the place where young people hang out for entertainment. Unlike the mall, young people on TikTok can interact with  millions of other people and ideas from around the world. This exposure can be an enriching experience — however, leaving young people unsupervised on TikTok can also result in them consuming hours of information that is false, harmful, or hateful.

In 2021, the National Education Association wrote a letter to tech companies complaining about the amount of misinformation and unsafe trends on TikTok and other social media sites. The group asked the companies to stop promoting viral challenges and misinformation. The letter came after several injuries, deaths, and bullying stemming from videos online.

Parents, it’s important to be well-informed of the content on TikTok and use parental controls to keep your child safe. If your child is repeating misinformation they learned online or has participated in a dangerous TikTok challenge, here’s how to address it.  

What Are Some Harmful Ideas on TikTok?

The following are only a few of the harmful ideas and conspiracy theories that can be found on TikTok. In addition to the types of videos listed below, there are other videos that encourage hate speech or violence toward others. Sometimes, these videos can appear in your child’s home feed, even though they haven’t searched for it. That’s why it’s important to monitor your child’s TikTok use

  • Misogyny: These videos are meant to shame women and girls for their physical appearance or accomplishments. Some videos advocate for violence toward females. This type of video became so commonplace on TikTok that the app had to specifically ban it from the site. Just because it’s been banned doesn’t mean that it’s completely disappeared. Andrew Tate, a self-proclaimed misogynist, was banned from TikTok in 2022 for his videos advocating violence against and dominance over women. His videos are designed to attract young men and boys to his ideas. Although he has been banned from TikTok, his followers still circulate his videos on social media.
  • What I Eat in a Day videos: Many of these videos promote unhealthy diet trends for the sake of being thin. One such video showed a young woman who wanted to lose weight for a spring break trip. She purchased a liquid meal replacement supplement and had a dropper full of the liquid along with some juice as a meal.
  • Helen Keller: Conspiracy theories surfaced in 2022 on TikTok about the deaf-blind author and disability rights activist. The conspiracy theories, stoked mainly by high school students, state that Keller was a fraud and that she couldn’t have achieved all she did being both deaf and blind. Other theories speculate that she never really existed.

Potentially Harmful Viral TikTok Challenges

Challenges are at the core of some of the biggest complaints about TikTok. In a TikTok challenge, viewers are encouraged to repeat the behavior exhibited in the video. 

Some of the challenges are harmless and fun, such as dance and singing challenges. Others have a bigger purpose: the Ice Bucket Challenge was launched in 2014 to raise money for ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis ) research. In this challenge, the individual in the video poured a bucket of ice water over their heads and nominated someone they knew to do the same. The challenge raised approximately $115 million and enabled the ALS Association to increase the number of research projects on the fatal disease. 

Despite the success of the Ice Bucket Challenge, there are other less-altruistic challenges that have resulted in property damage, injuries, and deaths.

  • Foopah Challenge: Users flash the camera with their private body parts and attempt to avoid TikTok’s nudity filters. Several TikTok users who carried out this nudity challenge were banned, but there were several Foopah challenge videos made with the user’s face covered. This made it difficult for the app’s auto-moderation bots to flag the video.
  • Kool-Aid Man Challenge: In this challenge, people imitate the Kool-Aid Man commercial by running through fences or drywall and yelling, “Oh yeah.” The challenge has resulted in thousands of dollars in property damage.
  • Blackout Challenge: At least 7 children, all under 15,  have died as a result of attempting this challenge. It calls for young people to tie a belt around their neck and strangle themselves until they pass out.
  • Face Wax Challenge: This challenge started in a beauty shop in the Netherlands. Wax is applied to the entire face and sometimes in the ears and nostrils. The wax is peeled away when it hardens. Dermatologists warn that wax can damage skin in sensitive areas, such as around the eyes. When wax is placed inside the nose, it can remove skin and hair that naturally protects the body from bacteria. 
  • The Beezing Challenge: According to one TikTokker who spoke out on the app against this challenge, this trend is decades old, but resurfaced recently. In its recent iteration, TikTok users rub peppermint Burt’s Bees lip balm on their eyelids, expecting it to heighten the feeling of being drunk. Opthomologists warn that the practice can lead to chemical burns on the eyelids, pink eye, and even permanent vision loss.  

How to Keep Your Child Safe on TikTok

In order to keep your child safe on TikTok, it is vital to talk to your child about being safe online and practicing responsible online behaviors. Parents also should supervise their child’s TikTok use and familiarize themselves with the app’s built-in safety features. 

TikTok has responded to concerns about the app by updating safety features and creating information for parents and caregivers. Here are some TikTok safety tips you can implement today:

  • Set your child’s TikTok account to private. This is the safest way to use TikTok. With a private account, only people you approve can view your child’s videos or follow your child on the app. A private account is the default setting for users who are 13 to 15 years old. 
  • Use TikTok Family Pairing. Parents can also monitor and control their child’s TikTok use by using the Family Pairing setting. This setting will sync your child’s account with your own. Family Pairing also gives parents the ability to limit the amount of time their child can use TikTok.
  • Make sure your child is using TikTok for Younger Users. There is a section of TikTok that is available to children under 13 that shows only child-safe content, but it is still not foolproof. If your child has encountered inappropriate content on TikTok, the offending account can be blocked and reported. 
  • Monitor your child's TikTok activity. BrightCanary remotely monitors your child's social media, including TikTok, and sends you an alert when your child encounters something concerning.

What to Do if Your Child Repeats Misinformation or Participates in a Dangerous Challenge

Despite your best efforts, you may hear your child repeating misinformation or hate speech they’ve heard on TikTok. You may even discover that they’ve participated in a dangerous TikTok challenge. 

While your first thought may be to ban your child’s TikTok use, talking to your child about their words or behavior is vital. Here are some suggestions on how to talk about challenges and misinformation with your child. 

Discussing hate speech and misinformation

  • Report the message, and explain why. Explain to your child that hate speech is harmful because it encourages hate or violence toward a person or group. Hate speech isn’t allowed on most social media platforms, including TikTok. Reporting hate speech helps prevent it from spreading.
  • Assess the emotional source. In your conversation with your child, listen closely for clues as to why they are repeating what they’ve heard online. Are they struggling with anger or isolation? Are their friends repeating these messages, and is your child trying to fit in?
  • Understand the information source. If your child is repeating misinformation, talk to them about the value of critically thinking about the information they consume online. It’s important to help kids understand how to check their sources and identify legitimate news, rather than fear-mongering, fake, or highly biased information.
  • Encourage empathy. Talk to your child about treating others the way your child wants to be treated. Consider sharing media that introduces your child to other perspectives, such as books that promote diversity and inclusion.

Discussing a TikTok challenge

  • Listen. Ask your child their feelings about the challenge and listen without judgment. With careful listening, you may find other issues to address, such as their wanting to be popular or fit it with peers.
  • Discuss consequences. Your child may state that they did the challenge because they were just trying to be funny. Make sure they understand that the impact of their actions outweighs their intent. Tell them about the risks, and use relevant news stories to illustrate the outcomes of TikTok challenges. 
  • Pause before posting. Many schools have launched anti-bullying programs that teach students to question themselves before speaking to or about other students. These programs often use the acronym THINK: Is it true? Is it helpful? Is it inspiring? Is it necessary? Is it kind? You can draw from this type of self-questioning with their TikTok use. Encourage your child to question whether their post or behavior will be hurtful or harmful and if they will regret the post or behavior later. 

The bottom line

TikTok is unique among other social media platforms because its algorithm can quickly expose kids to a huge range of people and ideas. Unfortunately, those ideas can sometimes lead to dangerous TikTok challenges, or they can perpetuate hate speech and harmful misinformation. Parents, it’s important to keep tabs on your child’s TikTok use and have regular conversations about the content they’re consuming online. These conversations are a key part of helping your child learn how to navigate the internet on their own as safe, responsible young adults.

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