The Complicated, Distressing Relationship Teens Have With The News

By Will Kane, Common Sense News

Ellis Whiteson, 11, starts his day with Good Morning America. At school, he might spend time on Snapchat and Instagram looking for updates from friends or news from media organizations like ESPN and The Today Show. By the time he gets home, he sits down with his parents each evening to watch the nightly network news, “the one with Lester Holt,” he said.

Occasionally, he glances at the family’s copy of the New York Times for news about “Donald Trump or communism,” but Ellis, like many young people, gets most of his news while his parents watch TV or he browses social media.

But for all the media he consumes and all the time he spends talking with his parents about current events, Ellis, like many teens and adults, is often flummoxed, overwhelmed and saddened by what he sees of the world.

A new survey released this week of 853 teens and tweens by Common Sense, called News and America’s Kids, found young people ages 10 to 18 value and follow the news, but are largely disappointed by what they see on their phones, online or on TV. They rarely see children in the news, and when they do many say the story is about crime, violence or other problems.

Like many adults, teens and tweens also have trouble discerning between real and fake news. They said they turned to trusted adults like parents and teachers to help make sense of what they read and see, even if many adults themselves struggle to understand the news themselves.

“Kids are curious about what is happening,” said Devorah Heitner, author of Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) their Digital World. “But kids don’t know who to trust because they are sensing that things are changing and everything is different.”

The survey found that young people have more access to the news than ever before, finding headlines and newsy memes on social networks like Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter, websites like YouTube or television programs. But despite their digital connections, they still get most of their news from parents or other family members.

Roughly 47 percent of teens and 42 percent of tweens said they got news from family, while 38 percent said they got news from a social network. Only 8 percent said they got news from physical newspapers, but 26 percent said they got news from a media app or website.

But the survey also showed that while teens and tweens understand current events, they often have trouble making sense of the news they consume.

“Sometimes I feel like ‘Oh gosh our world is really messed up, like why does war need to happen,’” said Ellis, a resident of New York City who would eventually like to be a neurosurgeon. “There’s really dreadful news like terrorist attacks that upset me, but if the news is about school closing (for a snow day) I will be jumping for joy.”

Experts also say that since kids have so much exposure to news, parents have an even more important role in helping provide analysis, context and skepticism.

“Many adults have bought into the mythology of a digital native and they conflate a teenager’s ability to navigate between text and Instagram as an ability to discern what is on those platforms,” said Sam Wineburg, a professor of education at Stanford University who studies kids’ media literacy. “That fluency makes us completely blind to their metacognition.”

Nearly a third of teens and tweens surveyed by Common Sense said they had shared a news story with friends and family that was not true. Only 25 percent said they trusted news from news organizations.

The data is similar to a study Wineburg conducted in 2016, where he asked 7,804 students from middle school to college to identify the difference between sponsored content and verified editorial content. Most could not.

“We’re talking about unverified content that is user-to-user,” Wineburg said of news stories shared on social media. “What makes something go viral is sort of a digital follow the leader.”

But while young people spend more than eight hours a day outside of school online, they still feel like they get their best information from friends and family.

More than two-thirds of teens and tweens in the Common Sense poll said that they trusted information from their family and 48 percent said they trusted news they learned from teachers or other adults.

“I think of ‘fake news’ as news that is not reliable or does not provide proper information for the reader,” said New York seventh grader Jack Messick,12. “I’ve run into biased news that doesn’t address the bias. … When I get confused I usually ask my parents, they usually have a clear understanding of what I am trying to ask.”

Parents should talk with their kids about the facts of the news and help them learn to question things they learn online or from friends, Heitner said. “It is really important for kids to understand the filter bubble and what the bias of their feed is,” she said.

Ellis’ mom, Janine Whiteson, said she and her husband regularly try to speak to Ellis and his 17-year-old brother, Harris, about the latest headlines, but the topics can be overwhelming.

“How much do you discuss the stupidity of the world with a child,” she said. “The day is long enough. They’re stressed, we’re stressed. We try to do family dinner four nights a week, but some topics are just overload we haven’t discussed.”

Sometimes, instead of talking about current events, Whiteson said she and her husband try to teach their children to question what they read online.

“We always tell the kids to take a step back,” she said. “They come to us and say, ‘I saw this on the computer or this on the phone, is this true?’ Ellis saw a chain letter just yesterday that said, ‘I’m a young kid and if you don’t read this and send it to 50 friends you will die.’ He was very concerned and we talked about it and told him ignore it, delete it, it is not true.”

But adults need to be vigilant that they aren’t letting their own biases inform what they tell their children, and teachers need to reinvent how they teach research to students, Wineburg said.

“Most people when they go online, they just get confused,” he said. “The question is, what does it mean to learn history when you can go online and get evidence for whatever you want?”

Common Sense News is an independent arm within Common Sense, which commissioned the poll. Common Sense News stories and views are not influenced by our Common Sense.

Will Kane is a Common Sense News Staff Writer. Common Sense News is a nonprofit news organization that focuses on children and family issues. Learn more at commonsense.org/news.

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