Save the tree octopus!

The what? No, that isn't a typo, but it isn't a real species either. I know that, and you know that. But a recent study found that many kids don't know that — especially when they see a website detailing the existence and the fragile plight of the tree octopus.  

To the discerning eye, Save the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus is a complete joke. Here's a sample from the site:

Tree octopuses have eyesight comparable to humans. Besides allowing them to see their prey and environment, it helps them in inter-octopus relations. Although they are not social animals like us, they display to one-another their emotions through their ability to change the color of their skin: red indicates anger, white fear, while they normally maintain a mottled brown tone to blend in with the background.
But, time and time again, this site is duping kids into believing it's the real deal.

In a recent study, conducted by Dr. Donald Leu of the New Research Literacies Lab at the University of Connecticut, researchers asked a group of students to search for information on the tree octopus, and even directed them to the aforementioned website.  

The result? The kids bought the whole tree octopus thing — hook, line and sinker. They not only believed in the existence of the tree octopus, they continued to believe in the mythical creature even after the study's leaders explained that there was no such creature.

Leu's study concludes that "anyone can publish anything on the Internet and today's students are not prepared to critically evaluate the information they find there."

But hasn't that been the case for every generation of kids? Kids spend their lives being told what to do and what to believe, so is it really so shocking that they would fall for a hoax of what appears (at first glance) to be a real creature?

I don't think falling for this particular ruse is any indication of how smart or not smart kids are today, but it does offer a great opportunity to teach kids that they can't believe everything they see in print or on TV.  

I just had my 8-year-old check out the site. While she was skeptical about it at first, her skepticism gave way to interest when she started checking out the site. After all, to an 8-year-old who just read a book about raccoon dogs, a tree octopus is not a huge stretch. Then I asked her to find another reference about the tree octopus, and she couldn't. When it didn't turn up in the listings of the encyclopedia, her skepticism returned. Sure, she fell for it for a minute, but then (with my help) she remembered how to check her facts. That's a great lesson to learn for all of us.

Want to have some fun today? Try out the tree octopus experiment with your kids (or your favorite gullible coworker) and see how long it takes them to catch on!

MNN homepage photo: cabral_augusto83/iStockphoto

Is the Internet making kids dumb?
New study contends that today's kids have lost the ability to discern internet fact from fiction.