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What the Research Says: Youth, Media, and Democracy

A summary of research and scholarship on the critical, complex relationship between young people, the media, and civic/political engagement.

In the past decade, engagement on digital platforms and social media has been a crucial part of many young people’s civic and political engagement. That was even truer in 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced many activities to move online. Social media doesn’t just have extraordinary reach; it also allows many young people to not just consume, but create content that uplifts their views and their voices. For many youth, that’s a critical part of their civic development that they’re not getting from traditional media.

Over the past two decades, the academic literature on young people’s relationship and engagement with various forms of media has highlighted some troubling trends and challenges. But some recent scholarship points at the power of youth media creation to transform young people’s relationship with the media in ways that will benefit media institutions, youth themselves, and ultimately our democracy. Some key takeaways from our review of the literature:

  • Young people are dissatisfied with traditional news media—especially with local news. They have substantive critiques to offer about its format and content.
  • Representations of youth in traditional media are often one-dimensional, inaccurate, or stereotypical in ways that can be harmful to young people’s identity development— particularly for youth of color, young women, and low-income youth. 
  • Youth media creation can’t fully remedy these problems, but it can mitigate some of the potentially harmful impact of traditional media and it offers many potential benefits for young people and their communities.

You can find a full list of references at the end of the text.

Young People and “Traditional” Media

It’s a cliché at this point that young people don’t read the newspaper, and older people sometimes wield that fact as proof that youth are apathetic about politics and social issues (Buckingham, 2000; Drok, Hermans, & Kats, 2017). However, research suggests that’s not the case, and the disconnect between youth and traditional media may be more an indictment of the latter than the former.

Studies show that traditional media isn’t presented in a way that is relatable to young people who have grown up in a completely different media atmosphere (Drok, Hermans, & Kats, 2017, Costera Meijer, 2007). For example, many youth now perceive reading print news as a leisure activity (Qayyum & Williamson, 2014), since its format is too hard to consume on-the-go to be a valuable source of information gathering (Zerba, 2011). Young people now get just as much news on social media as Baby Boomers receive from local television. That shift has decreased the need for “repetitive” content (think of the same story that airs multiple times a day on the local news broadcast) and increased the demand for more innovative delivery both in terms of technology and tone (AP, 2008). At the same time, it has created a media environment that can feel overwhelming and cause news fatigue (AP, 2008).

The shifts are not always easy for older people to grasp and respond to. Because their social media habits are different and their “feeds” often have less political information, older people have a harder time understanding the extent to which young people use these platforms for news sharing. This has also posed a challenge in studying social media as a news platform (Mitchell et al., 2015).

Young people also use and prioritize their time differently than previous generations. That affects the way they want to consume their news, especially when there are options for news sources that are curated to their interests (Costera Meijer, 2007; AP, 2008; Williamson et al, 2012; Qayyum et al., 2013). Traditional media has not successfully adapted to these major changes.

In addition, young people want—and don’t always get—a range of things from their news; not just information, but inspiration, a sense of belonging and meaning, social integration, representation, and local understanding (Costera Meijer, 2007; Lewis, 2008 Costera-Meijer, 2010, Zerba, 2011).

It’s also important to note that not all youth perceive or engage with the news in the same way. Parents’ media consumption affects children’s attitudes and behaviors related to traditional media (Williamson et al., 2012; Qayyum et al., 2013; Armstrong & Collins, 2009). Such attitudes also differ by race/ethnicity, with white news consumers more likely to perceive local papers as credible (Armstrong & Collins, 2009). Other research that combines critical race theory with media literacy shows that, with media literacy education, young people of color can easily identify coded language that potentially silences their experiences even in news that is about their own communities (Kohnen & Lacy, 2018)

Media organizations must address these concerns, especially because research is disproving the notion that young people would simply “age into” engaging with traditional media (Costera Meijer, 2007). Studies suggest that shifting to a “storytelling” model with a beginning, middle, and end can help to create a more meaningful news experience for young people (AP, 2008)

Young people also value traditional journalistic standards, but often don’t see those standards actually reflected in the media they consume (Costera Meijer, 2007; Hermans et al., 2014; Gutsche et al., 2015; Qayyum et al., 2013, Marchi, 2012). They’re not imagining it: research has shown that, over time, journalistic standards have eroded. (O’Neill & O’Conner, 2008).

In addition, youth want to see greater depth, more background information, more solution-oriented reporting, and a broader range of perspectives in news (AP, 2008; Drok & Hermans, 2016; Gutsche et al., 2015).

How Youth Are Represented in the News

One reason young people crave broader perspectives in the media is so there might be more and more accurate representations of youth. Stories about young people are disproportionately missing from traditional news (Gilliam & Nall Bales, 2001), and the stories that are published about youth often feature negative stereotypes, presenting young people as dangerous, morally corrupt, and violent (Bernier, 2011; Banaji & Cammaerts, 2014).

The centrality of violence in media representations of youth is especially concerning. Stories about young people make up almost half of news coverage of violence (Parker et al, 2001), even though violence against youth is more frequent than violence perpetrated by youth (Dorfman & Schiraldi, 2001). Reporting about violence is also highly racialized, with Black and Latino youth being disproportionately presented as perpetrators and white people as victims.

Research further reveals that this type of reporting is often entirely devoid of any social context. When reporting on a wide range of issues impacting youth—from drug use, to violence, to teen pregnancy—young people are often blamed for their actions. Much less attention is paid to the broader socioeconomic systems impacting their lives, such as poverty, racism, and lack of investment in education (Dorfman & Woodruff, 1998).  

Research on various groups, from African migrant youth in Portugal, to Black and Latino youth in the U.S., suggests that these representations of young people can have harmful impacts on their socialization and identity formation. Whether and how youth see themselves in the media  shapes their perceptions of self as well as their relationship to the government, country, and media (Marôpo, 2014; Adams-Bass et al., 2014; Rivadeneyra et al., 2007; Banaji & Cammaerts, 2014)

Media analysis studies also show how the news misrepresents youth civic engagement. Even when reporting on political activism, news outlets often portray young people—particularly youth of color—negatively. For instance, protests organized by Latino youth in the late 2000s were painted not as political actions, but as “unrest” that served as an excuse for troublesome youth to skip school. This type of racialized reporting is harmful and devalues the activist work of young people of color (Vélez et al, 2008).

Youth Media Creation As a Tool for Positive Change

One reason for insufficient, inaccurate, or harmful news portrayals of youth is that young people are so infrequently involved in creating those stories. Borrowing language from feminist theory, Emiljano Kaziaj (2016) coined the term “adult gaze,” to describe how news stories are constructed in ways that reinforce adult perspectives on young people. In short: stories that mention youth tend to be framed around an adult figure, actually exclude young people as sources, and disproportionately portray children as victims or objects of emotional appeal.

One way to offset these dynamics is for young people to create media about their own views and experiences. Beyond improving on the current state of youth representation in media, research has shown that youth media creation has myriad benefits for young people and for communities (Cybart-Persenaire & Literat, 2018).

Studies have shown that youth media creation can help develop skills and pro-social attitudes like critical thinking, collaboration, and higher self-esteem (Garcia et al., 2020, Chan, 2019, Brennan et al., 2010). It can create spaces for identity development, expression, and exploration, especially for racially diverse, marginalized, and bilingual young people (Ranieri & Bruni, 2013, Smith et al., 2020, Jocson & Carpenter, 2016, de los Ríos, 2018, Cybart-Persenaire & Literat, 2018, Wargo, 2017). In turn, this can help to promote youth civic and political development (Jocson & Carpenter, 2016).

When youth create media, it helps them use their own voice and see the power that voice can wield in civic spaces. It also can help young people to pair their personal and creative interests with public activism in a way that links political participation to skills, hobbies, and interests (Beatty, 2019, Literat & Kligler-Vilenchik, 2018, Charmaraman, 2011, Bertram & Chung-Chiu, 2009).

These benefits can be harnessed and amplified when youth media creation takes place in schools. Youth media production projects provide an array of entry points for young people to think about civic issues and to practice civic skills like research, reflection, and debate. Furthermore, in-class lessons can help promote positive behaviors outside of school. For example, when young people practice using social media in positive ways in the classroom for civic engagement, they may exhibit similar behaviors outside of the classroom. Pairing media creation with media literacy lessons can especially help young people develop a more intentionally critical eye with which they can engage with media (Cybart-Persenaire & Literat, 2018, 18. Beatty, 2019, McLeod, 2000).

Lastly, research has found that media-based projects can lead to increased motivation in the classroom. Having assignments that are fun, engaging, and relevant to young people—such as making videos about civic issues that are important to them—can make students more excited to engage in the classroom, all while developing both civic skills and media creation skills. (Pirhonen & Rasi, 2016, Bertram & Chung-Chiu, 2009)

That said, like any other aspect of young people’s civic education and engagement, it must be done right and with an eye toward equity. For example, not all youth have the same access to technology and broadband; it is important for efforts to promote youth media creation to take these inequities into account and to ensure that youth with a variety of skill levels and resources can participate equally. In addition, along with the often racialized nature of media explored above, women face more online harassment and cyberbullying than men. Educators and other stakeholders must be aware of this unfortunate disparity when encouraging young women to share their voices online, and ensure to the best of their ability that they can do so safely.

Youth, Media, and Civic Engagement Moving Forward

While the relationship between young people’s media consumption and civic participation is complex, research shows that engagement with both traditional and online news media is associated with greater levels of civic knowledge and awareness (Hao et. al, 2014; Boulianne, 2016). When youth aren’t engaging with news, their ability to understand and engage in civic life suffers, which in turn weakens communities and democracy.

The challenges in the news landscape are manifold and formidable, but ensuring that media is representative of and relevant to all youth must be a priority. Young people themselves are telling us what they need and want from media; it’s up to stakeholders to listen in order to ensure future generations of readers and listeners, and an informed electorate now and tomorrow. Supporting and engaging young people in media creation should be a critical part of those efforts.


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