Teaching children how to navigate health claims during COVID-19
Although bogus health claims have dogged humanity for centuries, a UBC Okanagan professor says COVID-19 has made the importance of navigating health claims more critical than ever. And there are plans to make BC’s elementary school students better health detectives, one class at a time.
Dr. Evelyn Cornelissen is a clinical associate professor with the Southern Medical Program (SMP) based at UBCO. As the global pandemic emerged last spring she became increasingly concerned with how health misinformation was impacting children.
“Internet connectivity and social media have fuelled the spread of health misinformation, while rotating lockdowns have increased uncertainty and reluctance to follow public health guidelines,” she says.
Cornelissen, a registered dietitian in Kelowna, enlisted the help of Rowan Laird, first-year SMP student and Jimmy Lopez, graduate research assistant with BC Children’s Hospital’s Vaccine Evaluation Center, to create a virtual seminar to teach children how to evaluate and identify reputable sources of health information.
“Misinformation is so endemic these days,” says Laird, who took on the project as part of a UBC Faculty of Medicine’s flexible and enhanced learning course. “Our goal is to teach students how to navigate health information online, spot misinformation and think critically about health claims.”
The project team presented their one-hour seminar “So You Want to be a Health Detective?” to a Grade 5/6 split class at École Glenmore Elementary in Kelowna. Laird was keenly interested in learning how and why 10- to 12-year-olds access information on their own.
The interactive session presented tips about evaluating information sources and encouraging the students to think critically about the 5Ws (who, what when, where, and why) to help spot websites that lack current scientific data or might have ulterior motives.
Feedback from the class indicated students often turn to Google to research questions they are initially reluctant to ask a parent or teacher out of fear of embarrassment. The internet is seen as a trial run before discussing with someone they trust.
“At times, it can appear people who are spreading misinformation are given an equal platform to the actual health experts,” says École Glenmore Elementary teacher Elizabeth Archer. “It is important for students to grow up recognizing they have a responsibility to look more deeply into headlines and general claims — especially about their own bodies.”
Students were given a pop quiz before and after the seminar to assess attitudes towards misinformation, trustworthy sources and their confidence levels in assessing online information. They were also given a blind test to compare web pages from the BC Centre for Disease Control and a prominent anti-vaccination organization.
“Within five minutes of studying each webpage, they were able to quickly identify the trustworthy source,” adds Laird. “I was really impressed how quickly they applied their critical thinking skills to assess the credibility of the information.”
The successful pilot has pushed the team to explore opportunities to expand the seminar to more schools and grades across the province in the fall.