Youth and information

Nearly one-third of young people in Switzerland have little to no interest in the news. Various studies show that daily world events are of secondary importance to them. They rarely use information sources and thus develop limited literacy in dealing with and processing news, which makes them more susceptible/vulnerable to misinformation. So, how can we examine the relationship between the younger generation and information today? Helping us with the answer is Eleonora Benecchi, lecturer-researcher at USI Faculty of Communication, Culture and Society. She collaborated in the study Reaching Swiss Digital Natives with News, conducted by Università della Svizzera italiana with the Universities of Zurich and Lausanne. 

The study involved a panel of 66 people between the ages of 12 and 20 from the three linguistic regions of Switzerland. It sought to provide solutions by analysing the demands and expectations of young people regarding news, the media, information consumption, and the so-called media literacy. With this in mind, we ask ourselves what piece of information are young people seeking? And what type of news are they looking for? 

Let us start from the premise that information means something different for young people than it does for journalists: traditional media see the news as information that should be known. Young audiences perceive it the same way (to some extent). Still, they also take into consideration other factors such as what is useful to know, what is interesting to know, and what is fun to know according to their taste. The results of our research shine a light precisely on the young people’s demand for programmes and information content designed for them, which can better match their reality and cover the topics that affect them most. It does not mean that they need pure shallow entertainment. Topics such as politics, economics or social issues were mentioned as content that could be interesting and in high demand, provided that it is packaged in formats that meet their needs. We were also given concrete examples: a monthly online magazine or an app with regular updates that sums up current events in an understandable and easily accessible way, through images or short videos. A visual adaptation of current events or topics is the general request. There is also the need to see "bad news" counterbalanced with positive news or examples of virtuous solutions to problems. Practically all young people who participated in the research complain about feeling drowned in negativity when watching traditional news. They also reported a feeling of information overload. They prefer more customised information to help them navigate the world of news they receive on their smartphones and save time. Then there is an interesting trend that we have identified, especially in Southern Switzerland: memes as a source of information through a two-step process. First the meme is received, usually through a direct message; then, if the content of the meme looks interesting, the recipient runs a search on the topic or the news. It is one of many instances where young people, rather than actively seeking out information, bump into the news.  

Why is the use of social media increasing among young people, and traditional media are no longer popular?  

This change concerns a general social change since it is not only young people who have shifted to social media. However, it also involves the timing of information consumption in young people. Our research has shown that most of them read the news and search for information on their way to school or work, therefore when they are "on the move," during breaks, and between activities. This behaviour inevitably relies on smartphones, which aggregate news and keep people occupied through social media and applications during their downtime. Access to traditional media happens very rarely through smartphones. Traditional broadcast is longer and less flexible than the videos found on social networks. Obviously, this is to the detriment of in-depth analysis and the variety of information. Young people have often told us that they have activated specific filters or have customised applications to receive only news related to interesting or useful topics. It shows that for them, the relationship between news, personal life, and personal interests is particularly important. In this sense, social media are ideal because they allow, and often urge, extreme customisation. 

Another key point is that, for young people, information rhymes with entertainment; one of the main drivers of news consumption is, in fact, "passing time" and "being entertained". Therefore, it is not surprising that they choose the same channels to inform and entertain themselves: social media, search engines and video portals. In addition, the reasons why young people stay informed are linked to relational needs and self-interest: they read the news to engage in discussions about current topics at school or with their peers, to keep up to date with events that directly affect their daily lives (such as storms or criminal activity occurring in their geographic context), to learn about topics that affect their group of friends. Concerning these types of needs, social media offer more immediate, though less in-depth, or reliable, answers that are easier to reuse in everyday life than traditional media.  

How critical is digital literacy to avoid becoming a victim of misinformation?  

It is critical. We never tire of repeating that. The studies we conduct in Switzerland on both the relationship between media and young people and the relationship between young people and information, point to several issues that need to be addressed through initiatives in and out of schools to increase young people’s media literacy and, above all, to vary their information consumption. Search engines and social media have conditioned young people to expect to find news and pieces of information quickly and easily. These tools have changed the very nature of "searching" for information and what it means to "do research." For young people today, "research" means "Googling." "Doing research" has gone from a relatively slow process driven by intellectual curiosity and a desire for discovery to a quick, short-term exercise aimed at finding just enough information to complete a task or meet an immediate need. The fact that today’s youth is so tech-savvy makes us believe that their ability to search for information about a video game or sports team will translate into the ability to find news on current events easily. But the Internet is a black hole of information, and indeed, not all of it is accurate. Young people, even those most familiar with technology, need to be guided. For example, they should be taught how to use advanced search tools and shown how to access resources such as online databases, news media sites, books, or online libraries. Today’s top priority should be teaching young people some criticism of online information. Research suggests that they are becoming less and less informed and, therefore, developing limited literacy in dealing with news, making this group more vulnerable to misinformation.  

Does information adapt to the needs of young people?   

It tries to do so, but not always effectively. At least if we look at consumption data or base ourselves on the observations collected in our research. Traditional media, such as newspapers, magazines and radio, or formats such as newscasts, have experienced a sharp decline for years among young people. This should be an incentive to change how we communicate with this population segment. However, it is not easy to understand how, and it is not by chance that the title of our study is also a question: how to reach young Swiss people with news?    

The results of our research, but this is also confirmed by other studies on the subject, underline the fact that traditional news programmes fail to involve young people even when dealing with topics that interest them. Rather than pursuing "fresh" and "light" topics, it would be useful to experiment with different formats instead. Young people prefer visual formats, such as videos or images that recap and illustrate what is going on in the world. Also, a re-packaged and easy-to-absorb piece of information is rewarded with greater attention in terms of content. News aggregators, apps, and push notifications are widely used precisely because of their way of condensing and delivering news. 

It must be said that some successful experiments also exist in our area and have been repeatedly reported to us by young people. For example, SPAM, a format designed by RSI for the young generation and conceived for social media, was very successful and showed a different way of tailoring information to a younger audience.  

There is also a critical time frame that we have identified in which young people are willing to be reached by the news, namely the 15-17 age group. People in this group are in a strategic phase. They are beginning to emancipate themselves from family habits concerning news consumption but have not yet consolidated their habits. In this age group, young people think it is essential to be informed about world events and to be able to form an opinion. Their attitude toward news is quite optimistic. For example, news is considered helpful for school and useful in daily life. Young people want to be informed to be able to take part in discussions at school or connect with peers. Even in this age group however, news consumption is driven by social media because it is "the easiest way to access news." Between the ages of 15 and 17, content tracked on social is often a starting point for accessing different online news media, but only those that do not offer traditional formats.  

What are the future scenarios?  

A critical battlefield, as mentioned, is that of the fight against disinformation. One of the issues that worries the young people who participated in our study is fake news and the consequent loss of media credibility. Unfortunately, this loss of trust impacts not only social media, considered by young people to be among the least reliable sources of information but also traditional media. It is why young people want to know who produces the news. In short, transparency is essential to them. It is no coincidence that they prefer news told in the first person because they consider it more trustworthy than news that is too "packaged" and impersonal. In this sense, the role of the so-called "influencers" or journalists close to their way of communicating is very important, though currently underestimated.  

I also see great potential in memes. They might really become a means to spread information among a younger audience. There are well-established examples that show you can make journalism with memes, using them to get people into the middle of the story to find out the details. The meme is a piece of a mosaic, which can be larger or smaller, more or less detailed. The problem for those involved in memetic journalism is to figure out which piece of the mosaic to isolate to make people want to find out the rest, i.e. click and read or see the related information. Among the young people who participated in our study, the memes linked to the news they wanted to explore were not created or hosted by newspapers but circulated informally in private groups or on social networks, in contexts where misinformation spreads. However, the fact that they personally took action to find out more, analyzing the meme, going back to the original sources and then going on to read a series of articles on the subject, I think, tells us a lot about the fact that perhaps we should be careful about talking about young people’s lack of interest or intellectual laziness. More than anything else, we observe a progressive distancing of young people from the traditional newscasts, but not because they don’t want to be informed. Instead, it is because they do not identify with the information. However, there is still room to change this attitude, especially in Switzerland, where trust in public service and professional journalism is still very high among young people.