Getting your News from Social Media

Lynn JataniaAn interesting thing happened the other day. My husband was talking about some recent political events in the United States, and my kids and I didn’t know what he was talking about.

Since the escalation of COVID-19 cases in our town in the fall of 2020, I’ve had to put myself on a severe news diet. I was spending way too much time fretting over the numbers and reports of people breaking the quarantine rules, and the political unrest in the United States, and talk on both sides of the border as to whether or not science as a whole was true and could be trusted. It was a lot of stress over things I could not control.

So, I stopped watching the current news in the evening and clips on YouTube from talk show channels completely. I developed very much a “wake me when there’s good news” approach and figured I’d eventually hear about anything really important. And it worked! I’ve felt much better when I’m not obsessing every single news item and filling my day with a lot of scary stuff.

But an interesting thing has happened, and that is that I now get my news exclusively from casual mentions by others on social media. I only really hear of something happening if someone I know mentions it on Facebook or Instagram.

My kids said the same thing when this came up with my husband – that they only hear about things from social media. That leaves their view of the world heavily skewed by who they are friends with on Instagram, and which public accounts they follow. When the Black Lives Matter marches happened last year, they knew all about it because the celebrities they follow on Instagram and YouTube were invested and talked about it on those platforms. But issues like access to vaccines in Canada, or controversy over the transfer of power in the United States, were completely off their radar.

Is that a good thing?

It doesn’t quite sit well with me that the kids only get news from social media. Lately, there has been a lot of press over social media bias, and how sticking to your protected circle of friends means you only hear a certain kind of news or certain kinds of opinions. It’s not totally clear that is the case, but there is a lot of evidence that news that provokes strong emotions – like fear or anger – gets spread more widely on social networks. We don’t necessarily want to flood our teens with scary situations that they can’t change. But we do want them to be generally aware of what’s going on in the world, and to be curious enough to gather reliable information about the issues, and in general to be thoughtful. We want them to be exposed to neutral reporting and to be able to discern truth from lies and to notice when something doesn’t add up quite right.

We’ve always aimed to raise kids that are aware of the issues around them, and give a lot of thought to social concerns. We want them to take their vote seriously, and to that end, we used to have lots of lively debates around the dinner table about current events and issues. We hope we have taught them to be caring to all members of society, to listen well to the opinions of experts and those with lived experience, and to think solemnly and seriously about what they want their country to look like as they grow into adulthood.

So, I’m not sure I’m happy being news-free anymore. It was a good holiday, but raising good global citizens is important, too. It’s time for all of us to find a good balance between obsessing over every news item, and only hearing about important events tangentially after they happen, from our favourite pop stars on Instagram.

I think we might start by encouraging them to read the CBC Kidsnews feed as it has some great coverage of current events, presented in a straightforward, easy to understand way without opinions or heightened emotion. It’s at about the right level for us right now – just the right amount of information we can handle.

What about your family – have you tried to keep your kids informed about recent events, or do you think it’s better to shelter them while COVID restrictions are in place? Where do your kids get their news from?

Related MediaSmarts resources:

Verifying Online News

Tip sheet: News you can use

Tip sheet: Talking to kids about the news

Tip sheet: Helping kids cope with media coverage of war and traumatic events

Break the Fake