The Voices of Youth Kalamazoo program is a collaboration between Southwest Michigan Second Wave and KYD Network, funded by the Stryker Johnston Foundation.
Young people like Max Achenbach and Hana Westrick, both students at Loy Norrix High School in Kalamazoo, are among millions of teens who are confronted with an endless number of choices about where to get their news and information on a daily basis. The endless choices make it challenging to know if a site is credible or not.
So, Achenbach, 15, is cautious when online.
“If I see a source on social media, I will usually go to a different source that I have used for a while and I know is unbiased and trustworthy,” the sophomore says.
The sheer volume of all this digital messaging can be a bit much, too, when a person is just trying to get the news, adds his classmate, Hana Westrick, also 15.
Youth say the sheer volume of information they have coming at them can be overwhelming.
“I get a ton of promotions on news apps to the point where it’s annoying,” says Westrick, noting how they pop up spontaneously. “Every third item is a promotion. They’re fully in front of me. They take up half my screen. The promotions are mostly pictures.”
Achenbach and Westrick are a part of Generation Z. Born between 1997 and 2012, this generation is known to be the most digitally-savvy generation ever. They grew up with ever-changing and growing technology. The world they live in today is populated with people always on their cell phones to access information.
At the same time, there is increased concern about untrue information online. About half of the 11,178 adults in a 2021 Pew Research Center survey (48 percent) said they want the government to take steps to restrict false information even if they would lose some ability to access and publish content. That’s up from 39 percent in 2018.
With Gen Z relying on social media platforms, news apps and similar sources to stay up on what’s happening, how will they know what is factual and what is not?
Sue Ellen Christian, a Western Michigan University communication professor, has created a media literacy exhibit that helps build skills in spotting disinformation. With 14 activity stations at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum in downtown Kalamazoo, “Wonder Media: Ask the Questions!” opened in April of this year. The exhibit runs through December 2023.
Christian says these COVID-strained years have opened a floodgate of information and opinions which she says has led many feeling stressed and confused.
“Non-credible sources can have a sort of constraining feeling on many who just want to see what is going on in the world,” Christian says.
Students need credible sources of information, according to repositoryfringe.org, an online clearinghouse of trusted sources and practical articles targeting those in academe.
“They contain updated information and are thus likely to be more credible than the old ones,” explains Sue Ellen Christian, WMU communication professor. “Credible sources are hard to find, sorting through sources and sites can be exhausting and draining, especially these past two years.”
Loy Norrix students Max Achenbach and Hana Westrick have concerns about Twitter.
Westrick says that she uses it “a little bit.”
“But Twitter sucks and the people on it are sick,” Westrick says.
Achenbach has his own issues with that platform. “It can be kind of damaging and scary, especially news on climate change and things against LGBT rights.”
How can parents and friends help students find credible news sources?
“I think kids are going to be the ones that encourage their parents and peers to find credible news sources,” Christian says.
“In general, I find that youth are more open-minded and less set in their ways because they are still growing and developing and thinking. They’re often exposed to different perspectives and backgrounds in schools that help them remain more open-minded.”
Leland Wagner, is a rising sophomore at Loy Norrix High School. He was a participant in the 2022 Voices of Youth Kalamazoo program that took place in April and May.