Help young people create healthy news literacy habits

photo of phone displaying a news website

From our Guest Blogger Series

I’m an auntie to several amazing niblings (i.e., nieces and nephews) and I’m a researcher for the News Literacy Project, a nonpartisan education nonprofit. Although I have been thinking for years about how we teach news literacy in the classroom, my role as an aunt has given me a fresh perspective on how we teach news literacy at home.

Growing up, my parents would snap open big print newspapers in the morning, passing finished sections to each other while sipping coffee. Our car rides, when not scored by my dad’s chaotically eclectic music taste, often had radio news segments playing in the background, and my siblings and I knew when we weren’t allowed to use the TV in the evening because my parents would be watching their preferred network news show. Whether they realized it or not, my parents’ news routines were signaling to me and my siblings the importance of news as a daily habit. 

Today, my appetite for news is similar to my parents’ interests, but how I access news is quite different. I read articles on news apps and websites and find news stories in my social media, podcast, and YouTube feeds. As my nieces entered their teen years, I wondered whether my largely digital news habits could send them the same signal. Were my digital news routines transmissible in the same way my parents were for me? Was I an effective news role model for the next generation? 

A recent study made me consider whether I was even asking the right questions. Researchers interviewed 50 young adults about their use of digital platforms, focusing on their encounters and engagement with news. Through their analysis of these interviews, they developed a concept called “personal platform architecture” to describe the process or labor of constructing individual media worlds through everyday social media decisions. The researchers suggest that social media users act as architects of their own media worlds when they make digital decisions like what platforms to add or delete, what groups to join or follow, and what posts to like or otherwise engage with. This work is also shaped or nudged by the platforms themselves, such as when a user engages with content based on algorithmic recommendations. The study findings further revealed that these myriad digital decisions affect news exposure; participants often constructed individual media worlds that facilitated news avoidance, whether or not that was their intended outcome (Thorson & Battocchio, 2023). 

So, perhaps the question I should be asking is: How am I sharing my blueprint for building healthy digital news habits with the next generation? For many young people, being a news consumer also means being a media architect. But just because someone is laboring to construct or remodel their individual media world doesn’t mean they are fully considering the consequences of their design decisions. They need to be able to anticipate how what they subscribe or unsubscribe to, like, follow, download, share, delete, add, join, or leave affects their opportunities to encounter standards-based news. Even just hesitating over content can be enough to significantly impact what an algorithm will serve next. 

Signaling to the next generation that news matters may not be as simple as regularly reading a print newspaper, but here are five ideas for helping the young people in your lives establish healthy digital news habits:

  1. Gift access to local news through an e-subscription or news app. Local news is a great way to help young people learn more about and become more involved in their own community. And, when you both have access to the same news subscription or app, it can be easier to initiate conversations about issues, events and news coverage.
  2. Ask who they follow for news. Do they check in with standards-based news outlets or professional journalists on their preferred social media platforms? If not, suggest a few they might find interesting or informative to follow. (Pro tip: Seek out news from people and organizations that demonstrate a concern for being accurate, fair and impartial.) 
  3. Talk about or share posts on how social media algorithms work. It’s important for young people to know what makes different platforms promote or hide standards-based news content from their feeds so they understand their effect. This can also help them protect themselves from being served harmful misinformation by an algorithm. 
  4. Show them how to set up news alerts or notifications for news topics of interest. Alerts and notifications can be a great way for them to keep up with issues and events they care about with minimal effort. Just be sure to also help them turn off alerts and notifications that might be too far afield from their interests so they don't get overwhelmed and tune out news altogether.  
  5. Find teachable news literacy moments. Skills like how to distinguish between news and opinion, spot misinformation, or recognize the standards of quality journalism in action are crucial for young people growing up in today’s complex information environment. Even if your local school has a media literacy requirement, opportunities to discuss news literacy at home can be crucial for kids to better understand the news and information they encounter every day. 

If there’s one thing I’ve learned as an auntie, it’s that you never know when your niblings are going to heed your advice or pay attention to the way you go about your day. We can show and tell about our digital decisions and news habits in all sorts of ways and across all sorts of platforms. To all the other aunties out there, as well as all the uncles and parents, please understand that our children will likely create very unique media worlds and rebuild those worlds again and again. So let’s share healthy digital news habits and help this next generation access and appreciate credible, standards-based news regardless of their media or platform of choice.

Kim Bowman is senior manager of research at the nonprofit News Literacy Project. She holds a PhD in education. Jan. 22 - 26 is National News Literacy Week.

Thorson, K., & Battocchio, A. F. (2023). “I use social media as an escape from all that” personal platform architecture and the labor of avoiding news. Digital Journalism, 1–23.