How do you know what to trust on the internet?

This article was first published on 5 February 2021.

With the internet now more accessible than ever, it can be difficult to know which sources or influencers are trustworthy.

It's always good to reflect on how careful you are when sourcing information online. You might be pretty good at spotting fake news, but do you know just how much misinformation can affect your mental health? BBC Bitesize’s Fact or Fake series can help with just that.

What's so bad about fake news?

Fake news is certainly nothing new - disinformation and propaganda existed long before the internet. But with algorithms tailoring our daily feeds, it can be easy to get caught in echo chambers. Echo chambers are environments where everyone has the same opinion, and these can make it easy to absorb harmful information without checking the facts or looking at counterarguments to make an informed opinion. Fake news relies on you clicking without thinking in order to spread it, and while it can be harmless in some cases, in others it can lead to some serious news anxiety and panic.

Scary stories and rumours can circulate around schools and naturally you want to know if they’re true — only to be met with a flood of confusing sources! This can have you worrying about the future as well as the present.

“Fake news can really harm our mental health. It’s purposefully manipulative, so a headline like ‘University fees leave students in debt until they’re 100’ is designed to cause anxiety. Others can make us scared or even ashamed,” says Emma Selby, a specialist mental health nurse consultant. “The sheer volume of fake news can overwhelm us. Hearing so many different claims can make us feel uncertain about what to believe, and then that can increase anxiety.”

It’s important to question everything, as misinformation can warp our sense of selves and the environment around us, and that can have serious consequences. For example, if you were consuming a lot of fake news about health and nutrition without questioning it, over time that could lead to getting wrapped up in unhealthy diet culture.

Learning about the different types of fake news and how to spot the signs can help you protect yourself from misinformation and form good critical thinking habits while you surf the net.

Echo chambers don't show us the bigger picture

Seeing isn't always believing

When we say question everything, that extends to what you see, not just what you read. Image-based social media can also present us with a certain reality and affect our mental health. The majority of influencers we look up to are not just showing only their best made-up self, but their images are often retouched or filtered. Filters can smooth out skin features or even ‘thin’ someone’s body and though some might be obvious, you could be consuming filtered images which are harder to spot. The more you interact with these images, the more your feed will provide you with.

Filter bubbles are responsible for exactly that: if you’ve liked and saved lots of fake selfies (even if you’re don’t know that they’re using filters), social media algorithms will remember your choices and suggest similar photos — which might be even more filtered. You can burst this bubble by following different accounts and liking different types of pictures so that the algorithm can learn and suggest other, more body-positive posts. Remember to take breaks from social media and spend some time in the real world too — you could even set timers for different apps to remind you to take a break.

There's tons of fun to be had with filters - but some filtered images are harder to spot

How else can we stay safe online?

False information isn’t the only danger that can affect us today. From endless social media scrolling to gaming day and night, there are plenty of ways to tiptoe into tech dependency. Games are designed to be as flashy, engaging and enticing as possible, with lots of colourful ‘rewards’ which reinforce good behaviour and keep us coming back for more.

Can you call your screen habits an addiction? Think about just how much time you’re dedicating to news, videos, games and social media and remember to take breaks away from your devices. Set ‘checking time’ to go through all your social media apps and then leave them alone for the rest of the day, and avoid checking them early in the morning or late at night. If you worry about the effects of social media or how often you’re plugged in, read more about how to take back control of your habits here. There’s plenty of support available!

If you need support

You should always tell someone about the things you’re worried about. You can tell a friend, parent, guardian, teacher, or another trusted adult. If you're struggling with your mental health, going to your GP can be a good place to start to find help. Your GP can let you know what support is available to you, suggest different types of treatment and offer regular check-ups to see how you’re doing.

If you’re in need of in-the-moment support you can contact Childline, where you can speak to a counsellor. Their lines are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

There are more links to helpful organisations on BBC Action Line.

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