Student podcast contest winners take on fake news and misinformation A group of Texas middle-schoolers won NPR's 4th-annual Student Podcast Challenge, and learned a lesson about fake news and the limits of "talking digitally."

These middle school students have a warning about teens and social media

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A fun thing this morning - we are announcing the middle school winners of NPR's fourth annual Student Podcast Challenge. The students - a team of four - are from a small Texas town just east of Dallas. It's called Rockwall. Their podcast digs into social media habits and fake news. NPR's Cory Turner brings us their story.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: A few things to know about Rockwall - the name comes from a vein of sandstone underneath the town. My producer, Eda Uzunlar, and I found a few pieces of it in the town square near a bakery with the slogan thick pies save lives and across from a knickknack shop going out of business called Texas Traditions. The town stretches up and down the eastern shore of Lake Ray Hubbard. From there, I'm going to let the winning podcast take over.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE WORLDS WE CREATE")

HARRISON MCDONALD: On the north side, every street name sounds the same - Lakeshore, Club Lake, Lakeview, Lakeside and so on. Every Sunday, thousands of people flock to our local megachurch, Lakepointe. Noticing a pattern? If it sounds like our town is boring, that's because it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HARRISON: But let's zoom into the center of one of those neighborhoods on Williams Middle School.

TURNER: That's eighth-grader Harrison McDonald, who wears a pair of chunky headphones around his neck every day like a uniform. Also on his team are fellow eighth-grader Blake Turley and seventh-graders Kit Atteberry and Wesley Helmer, along with their fearless leader, librarian and broadcasting teacher, Misti Knight. She got the students started making videos for the school's morning announcements.

MISTI KNIGHT: But then we realized - or I realized how good they were. And so I would say this year, I'm honestly more their manager.

TURNER: Which is why when Harrison came to her with an idea for NPR's Student Podcast Challenge, she said, why not? The idea was to explore how students at Williams Middle School - and probably every other middle and high school in the country - interact on social media, specifically when they go on a platform like TikTok or Instagram and create anonymous accounts to share things about school and their classmates, like who's hot.

BLAKE TURLEY: My friend was on there, and I texted him, hey, do you know that you're on this Instagram account? And he's like, what?

TURNER: That's Blake.

BLAKE: Most of the accounts aren't even gossip. Like, they're just pictures of people sleeping, eating, acting surprised, acting sad.

TURNER: Truly, there's a whole account dedicated to pictures of classmates sleeping in class. Sometimes the students are in on the joke, but often they're not, Harrison says.

HARRISON: Through the internet, people feel anonymous, so they feel like they can do whatever they want and get likes for it without any punishment.

TURNER: The boys found at least 81 of these accounts at their school alone. And then they got a big idea.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE WORLDS WE CREATE")

HARRISON: After seeing all of these social media pages, we decided it would be fun if we just made our own profile and posted fake gossip to see the impact it has and how it spreads through our middle school. The next thing we needed was actual content. So on our first day, we knocked on our school police officer's door and asked if he would pretend to arrest one of our AV club members for the camera. Surprisingly, he actually agreed.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: Hey, what'd he do? What'd he do, man? Hey, what'd he do?

HARRISON: Posted. We didn't think it would actually get anywhere. But less than 15 minutes later, we heard people starting to talk about it. We told the student in the video not to tell anyone about his fake arrest.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: I just told them that my lawyer told me not to tell anybody.

HARRISON: People actually believed you?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: Yeah, people actually believed me.

HARRISON: The next thing we thought people would click on was a fight. None of us are actors, so we thought we could get by with a shaky camera, bad video quality and sound effects. So we all gathered into the empty band room, hit record, and two of us pretended to fight while our cameraman tried his best to make it look as bad as possible.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: No. No. Stop. Don't touch him. No. You stop it right now.

HARRISON: Posted. Caption - huge fight in band today. Some of us would have kids walking up to us daily to tell us how we got absolutely destroyed in that fight or how they didn't know we were in band. We were having fun with it now. We grabbed screenshots from random YouTube videos...

BLAKE: This kid was picking his nose in Ms. Laudermilk's class today. #Nose. #Gross.

HARRISON: ...Used our phones to pretend to take creep shots of other kids in broadcasting and add the caption...

BLAKE: Yo, this boy brought his dog to school. #Suspended. #HashtagsAreDumb.

HARRISON: It didn't take long for our fake account to start getting more followers than any other gossip account we could find.

TURNER: And so as a kind of social experiment, these four middle schoolers went from quiet observers of social media to the school's master muckrakers, even though everything they posted was completely fake. In that way, the boys' podcast works as a kind of warning about the importance of media literacy at a time when Americans half a century their senior are being suckered by social media every day. But it's not just a scold about fake news. This podcast is about how, for kids their age, this is real communication.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE WORLDS WE CREATE")

HARRISON: We don't pass notes; we send texts with our phones hidden under our desks. We don't tell people about incidents that happened in class; we post it on TikTok. Our generation prefers talking digitally with each other from a distance than communicating with each other in the real world.

TURNER: In fact, the boys named their podcast "The Worlds We Create." Ms. Knight, a veteran teacher, says she's seen these changes in her students over the years.

KNIGHT: I just think there's a lot less talking and a lot more, you know, swiping through their phone instead of saying, hey, guess what I saw today?

TURNER: She's even seen it in her own family.

KNIGHT: I would talk to my husband about, oh, did you see our oldest daughter - she lives in California - she did this, or whatever. And he would say, how do you know this? I'm like, because I'm following her social media. If you don't do that, she's probably not going to pick up the phone and call us and tell us.

TURNER: Is that inherently bad? Ms. Knight says not necessarily. She does get to see more of what her daughters and her friends are doing. But the boys do end the pod by saying all this talking digitally can be a real curse for teens, especially when it hurts or excludes others. But it doesn't have to be. After all, the boys say, technology has always served one purpose - from radio to the telephone, TV to the internet - and that is to help us feel more connected and to build communities bigger than the ones we're born into. Cory Turner.

BLAKE: Blake Turley.

HARRISON: Harrison McDonald.

KIT ATTEBERRY: Kit Atteberry.

WESLEY HELMER: Wesley Helmer.

WESLEY HELMER, KIT ATTEBERRY, HARRISON MCDONALD & BLAKE TURLEY: NPR News, Rockwall, Texas.

(SOUNDBITE OF TEEN DAZE'S "SPRING")

MARTIN: So cool. You can hear the high school winners of NPR's Student Podcast Challenge later today on All Things Considered.

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