Classroom Technology

For Young People, News Is Mobile, Social, and Hard to Trust, Studies Find

By Benjamin Herold — March 08, 2017 5 min read
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Tweens, teens, and young adults consume a wide range of news, often as a byproduct of their frequent use of the mobile devices and social media applications they carry around in their pockets.

But they view much of the news they encounter as biased and unreflective of their own experiences. They struggle to identify “fake” news. And what they see and read often makes them feel afraid, angry, and depressed.

It all contributes to a profound sense of mistrust, as well as a growing need for new strategies to help youth navigate a shifting media landscape, according to two recently released research studies on children and the news.

“Young people don’t follow the news as much as it follows them,” concluded the New York-based research institute Data & Society in a report released last month.

That means a swirling stew of content from a hodgepodge of sources, often delivered via Facebook feeds or messaging apps. Opaque algorithms act as gatekeepers, determining what news teens and young adults will actually see. To cope, Data & Society found, young people rely on “networked strategies,” consulting multiple sources in an attempt to corroborate the stories that matter to them.

Family, friends, and teachers still play a major role in that process for younger teens, according to San Francisco-based nonprofit Common Sense Media. In a newly released study, 66 percent of the children surveyed by the group said they trust “a lot” of the news they receive from their family, compared with 25 percent who said they trust news organizations.

Even so, distinguishing credible content remains a challenge, Common Sense found: Just 44 percent of the children surveyed agreed they can tell fake news stories from real news stories.

It all adds up to a major challenge for parents and teachers, Michael Robb, the group’s director of research, said in an interview.

“To the extent we want kids to be good citizens, we want them to be able to think critically about whatever information they’re getting,” he said. “Teachers in the classroom have a responsibility to helping teach those skills.”

Following are summaries of the two new research studies.

News and America’s Kids: How Young People Perceive and Are Impacted by the News

(Common Sense Media, March 2017)

In January, Common Sense Media conducted a nationally representative survey of 853 tweens (10-12 year-olds) and teens (13-18 year-olds). Here’s what they found:

  • Children often receive news information from their families, friends, and teachers: 63 percent of the tweens and teens surveyed said they had gotten the previous day’s news from those sources, compared with 38 percent who said they got their news from a social-networking site; 37 percent received their news from television; and 8 percent got their news from a newspaper.

    “Children’s news consumption is being filtered through the adults in their lives, who have their own biases, interpretations, and background knowledge,” said Robb, the research director. “That places a target on parents, in terms of how they consume and discuss the news.”

  • Still, children—especially teens—prefer to get their news via social media: 27 percent of all children surveyed, and 34 percent of teens, reported that social media is where they want to get their news (more than any other source.) More than half of the children surveyed use Facebook, and 76 percent of those young people get news and headlines via the social-networking site.
  • Fake news is a big problem: Made-up news stories emerged as a huge topic of concern during the recent presidential election. Fewer than half of all children Common Sense surveyed expressed confidence in their abilities to identify such content. The findings were even worse for 10-12 year-olds and for girls. But just because young people struggle to determine if content is credible doesn’t mean they won’t share it: 70 percent of all respondents said they had forwarded an online news story during the previous six months, and nearly a third of those children said they later found out a story they had shared was “inaccurate.”
  • But fake news is far from the only problem: More than two-thirds of children felt the news media “has no idea about the experiences of people their age.” Just 34 percent agreed that the news media treats men and women equally, and just 29 percent agreed that the news media treats people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds equally. And while 70 percent of children surveyed said that consuming news makes them feel smart, 43 percent said news makes them feel depressed or sad, 42 percent said it makes them feel angry, and 36 percent said it makes them feel afraid.

How Youth Navigate the News Landscape

(Data & Society, February 2017)

The journalism industry is changing dramatically, the public’s trust in journalistic institutions is eroding rapidly, and young people are on the “front lines” of all the change, concluded researchers from Data & Society after conducting focus groups with 52 teens and young adults in Charlotte, N.C., Chicago, and Philadelphia.

“Because social media plays such a significant role in disseminating news for these youth, it was clear that they are regularly exposed to a range of content of varying quality that they must rapidly learn to assess,” the report states.

Facebook is a huge source of news (and newspapers are something you find at grandma’s.) Young people highly value user-generated content, such as livestreamed video. Such modern factors as mobile-friendliness and content load-time influence their perceptions of credibility. The reputations of an author and the person sharing news often matter more than who produced the content.

Perhaps most interesting, though, was what Data & Society found about how teens and young adults seek to assess the credibility of news. If a story on social media resonates, they’ll consult other sources, with TV networks such as CNN frequently serving as the final arbiter of whether a story is legitimate.

“Many teens and young adults in our focus groups expressed a lack of trust in the accuracy of news media and a feeling that they must rely on a system of distributed trust across multiple people and sources in order to feel confident about certain stories,” the report concludes.

See also:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.