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Feb. 23, 2018, 9:45 a.m.
Audience & Social

Can we keep media literacy from becoming a partisan concept like fact checking?

Plus: Screen time debates, and what the data says about kids and smartphones.

The growing stream of reporting on and data about fake news, misinformation, partisan content, and news literacy is hard to keep up with. This weekly roundup offers the highlights of what you might have missed.

Data & Society released a pair of reports this week — one on fake news, the other on media literacy. Nothing shocking here, but the fake news report does a good job of describing how the two conflicting definitions of “fake news” symbolize a broader schism between scholars/researchers and the right-wing media. On the one hand, that’s kind of a “duh” point; on the other, seeing it put starkly as a right-wing-media-vs.-scholarly-community problem is a good reminder of why this issue is so thorny and complicated.

[The first definition], “fake news” as critique of “mainstream media,” is an extension of existing critiques of the media industry made by conservative leaders or media figures. The second, “fake news” as problematic content, is a position advocated by scholars and media-oriented civil society organizations that seek to differentiate “fake news” from “real news” and classify different types of “fake news,” particularly as it is circulated over social media and search engines…

The interaction between two communities, both using the phrase “fake news” to stake claims of legitimacy of their sources over others, makes uses of the term particularly fraught.

The media literacy report, meanwhile, notes that most media literacy programs center around individual responsibility “rather than the roles of the community, state, institutions, or developers of technology”; varying initiatives also address the problem in very different ways, “which could indicate the vibrancy of the field or risk incoherence.” And though members of both political parties may say they support media literacy initiatives, “Lemish & Lemish (1997), when evaluating media literacy in Israel, reached a conclusion relevant to the current media environment in the U.S., that policymakers saw the media from their ideological perspective and advocated for media literacy education that would align with those ideologies. Challenges of ideology, funding, and national coherence limit the potential of media literacy initiatives in the U.S.”

One open question, the researchers note, is: “What is the political identity of media literacy in the U.S. during a hyperpartisan moment?” It makes me wonder if the concept of media literacy — the act of teaching it — will become partisan in the way the whole concept of fact-checking has, or if media literacy efforts in schools can somehow remain exempt from this. I discussed this a little bit on Twitter with Mike Caulfield, head of the Digital Polarization Initiative of the American Democracy Project, which teaches web literacy to undergrads. He posted a rough outline of how his initiative works in the classroom.

“Changing the narrative around kids to something more positive.” A lot of the fears around the fake news phenomenon do come back to kids: Are they going to be able to distinguish between what’s true and what isn’t, and will they even care? This week, Candice Odgers, a professor at University of California, Irvine, and at Duke, published an article in Nature about how — contrary to popular narrative — smartphone usage isn’t ruining kids’ lives. “Studies so far do not support fears that digital devices are driving the downfall of a generation,” she wrote. “What online activities might be doing, however, is reflecting and even worsening existing vulnerabilities.” Odgers’ research doesn’t focus specifically on adolescents reading news online, but it is an interesting response to the free-floating anxiety over the idea that something is wrong online and that young people are going to be particularly vulnerable to it.

She writes:

In the United States, ownership of mobile phones begins early. My colleagues and I surveyed 2,100 children attending public schools in North Carolina in 2015. In that sample, which is likely to be representative of US adolescents, 48 percent of 11-year-olds told us they owned a mobile phone. Among 14-year-olds, it was 85 percent (unpublished data; see here).

Another survey, done in the same year, indicates that on average, US teens aged 13–18 engage with screen media (from watching television or online videos to reading online and using social media) for more than 6.5 hours each day; mobile devices account for almost half this time. Ownership and usage is also high elsewhere: in a 2014 survey of 9- to 16-year-olds in 7 European countries, 46 percent owned smartphones

There is also some evidence for an increase in mental-health problems among adolescents. The percentage of US girls aged 12–17 reporting depressive episodes increased by more than 4 percent between 2004 and 2014, to 17.3 percent. The proportion of boys doing so in 2014 was 5.7 percent, a rise of 1.2 percent since 2004. Since 1999, the US suicide rate has also increased for every age group, with the most marked rise among adolescent girls. Similar trends among young girls have been observed elsewhere.

Various commentators have suggested that young people’s rapidly increasing use of digital technologies is accelerating or even driving these behavioral shifts and mental-health trends. In fact, last month, investors released an open letter demanding that technology giant Apple respond to what they see as a “growing body of evidence” detailing the negative consequences of digital devices and social media among young people.

Some of these fears, for instance, are clear in a recent New York Times op-ed, “America’s real digital divide,” by Naomi Schaefer Riley, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of Be the Parent, Please: Stop Banning Seesaws and Start Banning Snapchat. “No one is telling poorer parents about the dangers of screen time,” she writes.

Make no mistake: The real digital divide in this country is not between children who have access to the internet and those who don’t. It’s between children whose parents know that they have to restrict screen time and those whose parents have been sold a bill of goods by schools and politicians that more screens are a key to success. It’s time to let everyone in on the secret.

I spoke with Odgers briefly on Thursday about some of her research; our conversation, lightly edited and condensed for clarity, is below.

Laura Hazard Owen: There is some research that suggests that higher-income kids are more likely to read news online.

Candice Odgers: That is from a large PISA [Program for International Student Assessment] study, a cross-country comparison looking at the amount of time kids spend online and what they do there, in reference to household income. Kids in high-income households were spending more time reading, consuming news, searching for information, building the skill base that we’re going to want them to have…that was happening less among lower-income kids.

Owen: And then that New York Times op-ed also talks about this digital divide, that lower-income, minority kids are spending more time online than higher-income kids.

Odgers: Yes. The take-home message I got from that was that the solution to this new digital divide would be to restrict kids’ usage [of screens] in lower-income households, with the assumption being that higher-income households are already doing this. But the digital world is here to stay. We’re immersed in it. Adopting overly preventative and restrictive policies is not something that will close this digital divide. Higher-income students and families are finding ways to leverage the technology — but we want lower-income parents to stop and restrict screen time? That’s not the policy message I would want to send. That was my read of that article.

Owen: Can you tell me more about some of this research that seems to suggest that smartphones increase depression in teenagers?

Odgers: There is something happening with kids in the mental health space. There has been an uptick in depression among girls since about 2011, and people have tried to link that with smartphone use. The lines are going together — an increase in digital technology, an increase in depression — but there’s not a lot of compelling evidence putting these things together.

When you look at people pushing this narrative, look at the data they cite, it’s almost all correlational, or a lot of it is surveys of adults. It’s not completely irrelevant, but the evidence is just not there with kids. We don’t have enough research with kids to tell us about the direction of this effect. Are kids who are depressed more likely to go online and seek out negative information? Or is being online contributing to depression in some way? The reality is, we don’t know, and people who say otherwise are misrepresenting the data and the strength of the evidence. We are missing an opportunity to support kids suffering from serious mental health issues if we just assume that technology is in some way to blame for it.

Owen: So it’s kind of an open question, but what might some of the other reasons for teen depression be?

Odgers: Early trauma can lead to later depression. It also has to do with stressors in daily life. There are some theories about increased pressures that are placed on girls, whether those are academic or something else. And there are a number of things that have happened in the U.S.: A recession in 2008 that hit vulnerable families really hard; we don’t fully understand the impact of that. There’s some work done by my colleagues at Duke that’s linked local impacts and job loss of plant closures to increased suicide risk among girls. There’s a whole economic story that’s there. The opioid crisis has led to deaths and suicides of adults, who are in families with kids. There are a lot of things that are happening, and depression can be caused by many things.

The concern is that the narrative with the phone is very compelling to a lot of people. It’s something they can easily point to and blame. If we simply focus on restricting screen time, we miss the opportunity to identify the real causes of depression and suicide risk.

Owen: Do you see any of this tying back into concerns about how we teach media literacy?

Odgers: Yes. I think there are a couple things going on. Part of the problem is that the digital landscape is moving too quickly for curriculum to keep up. For standard lessons and unit plans, teachers are left piecing this together and there’s a lot of variability in the resources to do that. It may be the case that higher-income schools have more resources to do that than lower-income schools.

But it’s also difficult for adults to determine what is fake news and information. It’s a skill that is having to be developed even among adults. To expect that to be transmitted efficiently, I think, is a big ask right now, given how quickly things are changing.

Owen: Watching the Parkland teens in the media this week, some people have expressed surprise that they could be so articulate and so well-spoken and savvy. But you were not surprised by that.

Odgers: Yeah. I’m not surprised. If you look at indicators of this generation, what you see are some pretty amazing statistics in terms of how well they’re doing. That’s not the popular narrative. But we’ve hit record numbers of kids graduating from high school and going on to secondary education, lower levels of violence and teen pregnancy, and digital and social media literacy coming online in ways that we don’t fully understand.

Adolescence has always been this amazing time of huge growth intellectually, socially, emotionally, and to see these kids rise up in this way is really part of the power of this period — of them demonstrating incredible resilience, and incredible ability to channel resources and to passionately and eloquently state their case.

Every generation does it — they think the generation that comes after them is flawed in all of these ways and criticizes how they’re using their time. I think there’s been a particularly powerful negative narrative around [this generation of] kids, and part of that is because of kids and phones. But when you look at the objective data today about how kids are doing, they’re objectively doing pretty well, and better than prior generations.

Illustration from L.M. Glackens’ The Yellow Press (1910) via The Public Domain Review.

Laura Hazard Owen is the editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email ( or Twitter DM (@laurahazardowen).
POSTED     Feb. 23, 2018, 9:45 a.m.
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