As a nation, we have a complex relationship with young people. Mainstream media simultaneously chides young people’s use of social media and technology, while celebrating some youth cultures and recognizing their important contributions to social movements throughout history—from the Vietnam War protests to the post-Parkland actions against gun violence. Young people also get blamed for a lot, like low voting rates, without enough attention to the lack of deliberate opportunities for youth to have a say in how our nation works.
Findings from a recent study by the Pew Research Center highlight why any narratives about youth require not just more nuance, but wholly different framings that see young people as assets to our democratic society. This is especially true when it comes to media literacy and civics, topics on which too many often assume that young people are especially naïve in their media consumption or susceptible to misinformation and “fake news.”
New findings from a national survey that the Pew Research Center put out on Monday appear to suggest otherwise. It is a study of U.S. residents’ ability to differentiate between fact and opinion and surveyed a large group of adults over 18. According to the findings, young people (18-29) were actually most likely to judge all five fact and opinion questions correctly, compared to other age groups. Just over a third (34%) of 18 to 29-year-olds judged all five factual statements accurately, compared to just 17% of those aged 65+. And almost half (46%) of 18 to 29-year-olds judged all five opinion statements as such, more than double the rate of those 65+.
It’s true that these numbers aren’t as high as we’d like for any age group, but this highlights the need for interventions across communities, rather than seeing only youth as the problem. After all, parents, teachers, and other older adults pass social problems and habits on to young people.
What could account for these findings?
It’s important to remember that young people have a wide variety of experiences and exposure to media and politics. There is likely not one single explanation, and more analysis would help to clarify possible answers, but here are some thoughts:
- There’s a popular refrain in the youth civic engagement community, which is that when it comes to politics, youth have a strong “bullsh*t detector.” That skill could extend to knowing when a statement appears to be an opinion.
- The report also shows that the digitally savvy have more ability to differentiate. While it’s important to remember that not all youth have the same levels of digital access, many have experience using and navigating digital spaces where opinions are constantly, and often forcefully, being expressed.
- Additionally, as one of my colleagues pointed out, young people are ‘closest’ to educational interventions that could help build these important media literacy skills, which can be developed in the classroom, on digital platforms that allow for media creation, and in other contexts. The ‘further’ one is from an intervention, the higher the likelihood is that the positive effects will have diminished. In this case, youth would have been more recently exposed to educational interventions.
At the same time, the finding that youth do better than older adults at differentiating between fact and opinion is impressive given the numerous challenges young people face in navigating modern politics: from not learning much in schools about modern political parties and ideology, to the underfunding of youth-centered media literacy. Above all, it should serve as a reminder to many, including to young people themselves, that they are as well-equipped as anyone to participate in a democracy that desperately needs them.
 The representativeness of the youth sample matters, of course, but since the Pew team weighted the data based on Census population figures, I’m looking at the data in good faith.