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Media-Making about Social and Political Issues Builds Confidence in Teens

CIRCLE’s survey of teens (ages 14-17) reveals that they’re active creating and sharing political content online, and that it helps them realize the power of their voice in public conversations.

In the past two years we have highlighted some of the ways that digital media creation can be an excellent tool for young people's political expression and civic development. In the context of the recent election, we focused especially on voting-age young adults (ages 18-29) whose digital media creation may have been tied to electoral engagement. But what about underage teenagers, who are not yet old enough to vote—though they may be participating in elections in other ways— and who lack many of the personal and social freedoms their older peers enjoy?

Much like their slightly older peers, many teenagers are deeply invested in the causes and issues they care about, and they are just as active (if not more!) in wielding digital media as a tool for change. This is encouraging because, in addition to encouraging a host of prosocial skills and attitudes, digital media creation is also a valuable civic tool that helps young people recognize the power of their own voices in civic spaces. It aids in identity development and exploration, particularly for marginalized young people, and it helps them link their skills, hobbies, and creative interests with political participation. Social media, particularly, allows teens to not only consume information, but to be active and creative participants in constructing their own civic understanding.

Through our CIRCLE post-2020 election survey of teenagers (ages 14-17), we sought to better understand how teens are engaging online and creating media, and the impact of their engagement. We found:

  • Nearly half (45%) of teens have engaged in at least one of three forms of media creation about social and political issues: 1) submitting content to a website, media outlet, or other social media account they follow; 2) creating a visual to bring awareness to a social or political issue; or 3) sharing an experience  through media or on social media to bring awareness to a social or political issue.
  • Many teens feel unqualified to speak out online about political or social issues , and many fear potential backlash from their peers. However, the act of media creation itself can help teens feel more empowered and informed.
  • Students who had learned media literacy skills in school were about twice as likely to have created media in the past 30 days as students who had not.
  • Many teens have received media literacy instruction in school that has given them the opportunity to create media in various forms, but these opportunities are not evenly distributed.

About the survey: The CIRCLE 2020 Teen survey was a web survey fielded from September 21, 2020 to November 18, 2020 by Qualtrics. The survey covered young people between the ages of 14 and 17 in the United States. Under Institutional Review Board ethics and regulations, consent from a parent/guardian is needed to communicate with a young person under 18 years old for research purposes. As a result, adults with children on the Qualtrics online panel served as the first point of contact. If a parent had a teen in the age range at the time of the survey and approved of participation, they filled out a consent form and share the opportunity with their child. Teens then also had a choice to participate or not, and fill out a consent form themselves. A total of 1,847 young people completed the survey. The margin of sampling error is +/- 2.3 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. This calculation does not account for potential error introduced by the parent-to-teen invitation structure. Margins of error for subgroups will be larger. 

Teens are Active Online

Much like their older peers, teens are no strangers to online creative expression, and many choose to wield this creativity as a tool for sharing political and social ideas. Although traditional news narratives often suggest young people  are politically apathetic, the media they create disprove this. Almost half of teens surveyed (45%) said they had created one of three forms of political media within the past 30 days: 29% had submitted writing, photos, videos they had created about politics or social issues to a website, media outlet, or other social media account they follow; 27% had created an image, GIF or video to bring awareness to a social or political issue; and 34% shared an experience through media or on social media to bring awareness to a social or political issue. About 15% of teens said they had done all three.

This media creation doesn’t happen in a vacuum, though. As youth-made content proliferates, so do opportunities for young people to engage with their peers on political and social issues. The digital platforms where teenagers most commonly see youth-produced content (e.g., YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok) are increasingly blurring the line between information consumption, content creation, and relationship-building. In an online environment in which socialization and personal expression are mutually reinforcing, opportunities abound for civic dialogue. About 69% of teens said they had seen media created by another young person about a topic they cared about at least occasionally within the last week. Half (51%) had commented on someone else’s post at least occasionally within the last 30 days. Given the important role political discussions with peers and loved ones play in the formation of civic ideas and identities, the frequency with which teenagers engage with one another’s media underscores how consequential online creative spaces are to youth civic development.

Media-Making can help Teens Feel Confident and Empowered

Although teens are prolific media-makers and seem to be adept at reaching their peers, they don’t always feel confident in their ability to contribute to political conversations. About 40% of teens surveyed reported they were scared to voice their opinions about social or political issues online because they felt unqualified, and a similar number (39%) were afraid to use their voices because of how their friends or peers might react. Previous CIRCLE research has suggested that these feelings of fear and inadequacy remain relatively stable throughout the early adult years, though they vary by gender and race/ethnicity. 

At the same time, the very act of media creation can be a powerful civic tool that helps teens feel more competent and empowered. More than four in five teens (82%) who created some form of media in the last month said they felt more informed about politics as a result, and a similar proportion (80%) said they felt like their voice was more powerful. The self-reinforcing benefits of creativity on teens’ political efficacy underscore the importance of providing them with meaningful media-making opportunities. 

Media Literacy Can Facilitate Media Creation—and Vice Versa

Given that teens are already actively using media to tackle political and social issues, and given the crucial role media creation plays as a civic pathway it’s important to consider how adult stakeholders can encourage and leverage media-making for civic action. Educators, particularly, can play a crucial role in affording young people opportunities to wrestle with political and civic issues through media. Increasingly, educators are recognizing that media literacy, or the ability to analyze, evaluate, and think critically about media messages, should be an essential part of civic education. Many media literacy educators consider the creation and manipulation of media to be a key civic skill in an ever-dynamic, information-based democracy. Indeed, among our survey respondents, students who had learned media literacy skills in school were about twice as likely to have created media in the past 30 days as students who had not. This civic approach to media literacy recognizes not only that information about public issues exists to inform action, but reinforces to students that their voices matter in the democratic process. 

It’s encouraging, then, that a majority (53%) of 14- to 17-year-olds in our survey report having learned about media literacy in school, with social studies, English, and history classes being the most commonly cited sources for this kind of information. This figure is in line with other estimates from the field of media literacy education, though media literacy education can be difficult to measure, and estimates can diverge widely depending on how “media literacy” is defined. Our analysis, for example, asked teens to reflect on whether they had ever learned in school about “media literacy or how to analyze and evaluate news and media.” It further broke media literacy down into a number of sub-categories, including learning about differentiating between fact and opinion, creating a digital graphic, creating media about the people or issues in their community, and learning about or working with a local news outlet.

By way of contrast, a 20191 Common Sense Media analysis2 found that about six in ten K-12 teachers were using some form of “digital citizenship” curriculum.3 Though digital citizenship is related to media literacy, the two are not interchangeable. Digital citizenship, as Common Sense Media defines it, includes broader digital wellness competencies like the ability to protect one’s privacy online and the ability to recognize and respond to cyberbullying and hate speech. In a more recent survey fielded in 2020 by the RAND Corporation,4 the number of teachers who said their schools addressed media literacy “in some form” was estimated at 80%.5 An older study conducted in 2015 by researchers at the University of California, Riverside settled on more conservative estimates: by their measures, 67% of students had learned about “how to create and share digital media” during the 2014-2014 school year, and 37% had said they had learned “how to effectively share [their] perspective online.”6 These differing figures underscore how elusive a comprehensive definition of media literacy can be in a multi-faceted and rapidly-shifting digital media environment.

Among the wide array of media literacy competencies measured by CIRCLE and others, fake news remains a core concern for educators. CIRCLE’s survey identified the ability to identify factual information as the most common media literacy skill students reported learning with about 80% of students saying they’d had some instruction in differentiating between fact and opinion. Media creation, though, has by no means been ignored: roughly 40% of teens had designed a digital graphic in school, and 28% had created media about people or issues in their neighborhood or community. About one-quarter had learned about or worked with a local news or media outlet.

However, media literacy opportunities are not equally distributed among all teens. Disparities exist along race/ethnicity, education, and geographical lines. Black students, for example, were less likely than their Latino and white peers to have had media literacy instruction in their classes. Students who reported living in urban areas and whose parents had advanced degrees were the most likely to have benefitted from media literacy opportunities. While not surprising given the opportunity gaps that characterize K-12 education in general, this finding highlights the need for more intentional integration of media literacy opportunities into school curricula for a greater diversity of youth. Teenagers, after all, generally remain underrepresented in both media and in democracy, but this is especially true of marginalized youth and youth of color.

Opportunities for Educators and Media Professionals

Since a wide diversity of teens are already motivated and active  in uplifting the issues they care about through media, it’s vital that media professionals, educators, and other adult stakeholders support them in expressing their ideas and sharing their experiences. Although some teens might lack the confidence to participate in political conversations on their own, media-making and media literacy education more broadly are valuable tools that can enable them to contribute to discourse, recognize the importance of their own voices, and take informed action.

Focusing on teens is especially critical, because the civic skills, attitudes, and habits that allow people to meaningfully participate in democracy don’t automatically switch on the moment youth turn 18. Supporting teens in their creation of media presents a unique opportunity for adult stakeholders to Grow Voters long before young people reach voting age. Giving teens media-making opportunities, especially in school, not only allows them to contribute their valuable voices to political discussions, but allows them to see themselves as changemakers and people with agency even before they’re endowed with formal political rights.

1 Survey fielded in 2018.
Vega, V., & Robb, M. B. (2019). The Common Sense census: Inside the 21st-century classroom. San Francisco, CA: Common Sense Media.
3 Common Sense Media defines “digital citizenship” as “Thinking critically, behaving safely and participating responsibly in the digital world." See here for the full survey instrument.
4 Baker, G., Faxon-Mills, S., Huguet, A., Pane, J.F., & Hamilton, L.S. (2021) Approaches and Obstacles to Promoting Media Literacy Education in U.S. Schools. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation.
5 This number is aggregated by the RAND Corporation from responses to the following questions: Our school has adopted an explicit media literacy curriculum from an organization like Common Sense Media or the Center for Media Literacy: 17.1% responded “yes.” We have no school wide media literacy curriculum, but I or other staff teach media literacy using materials designed for this purpose: 25.4% responded “yes.” I or other staff integrate some media literacy concepts into regular classroom instruction (e.g., during language arts or math classes): 40.7% responded “yes.” I or other staff address media literacy with specific students when problems arise (e.g., student misuse of social media): 25.9% responded “yes.” I or other staff have adopted another strategy to promote media literacy: 1.5% responded “yes.”
6 Kahne, J. & Bowyer, B. (2019) Can media literacy education increase digital engagement in politics?, Learning, Media and Technology, 44:2, 211-224, DOI: 10.1080/17439884.2019.1601108

Authors: Madeline McGee, Abby Kiesa, Sara Suzuki