When three terrorists attacked central London in the spring, within minutes my 15-year-old son knew more about it than I did. The alert on my phone from a Canadian news organization linked to a story with skeletal information; my son, meanwhile, hit the chat site Reddit, which was teeming with links to breaking coverage from British sources at the scene.

He’s also beaten me to the punch when other news has broken, tipped off to events by people in faraway countries posting local TV images to Snapchat and Imgur, the image-sharing site.

It’s been like this in my household for a while now: Even before I’ve scanned the morning paper and put breakfast on the table, my son will pepper me with observations about the latest U.S. political news he’s gleaned from watching the previous night’s talk shows on YouTube.

He’s apparently not alone. A study by Google and the Canadian market research firm Ipsos says the postmillennials known as Generation Z check their phones on average 31.2 times a day. Parents whose young teens are spending their summer days with faces cantilevered over phones might wonder if events in the real world ever break through the Instagram-Snapchat reverie of their app-notized offspring.

But new research and anecdotal evidence suggest teens are voracious consumers of news, albeit in ways that may differ sharply not just from their parents, but even from siblings who are only a few years older.

They care about current events more than you might think: A survey conducted this year for the U.S. non-profit media literacy foundation Common Sense Media found that 48 per cent of children ages 10 to 18 believe that “following the news is important to them.” It’s certainly easy enough for them: They’ve been growing up with thousands of outlets at their fingertips.

They’ve pushed Teen Vogue – which snagged a lot of attention during the U.S. election for launching a politics section featuring some sharp political commentary – to new heights. They’ve also helped spur a cottage industry of standalone YouTube pundits, and are a growing part of the audience for upstart channels such as the progressive news outlet The Young Turks.

Last year, teens’ desire for news was part of what prompted Snapchat, the onetime fave app of sexters everywhere, to launch partnerships with dozens of respected content providers, including VICE, The New York Times and Vogue, for its Discover feature. (In the United States, 22 per cent of Snapchat’s daily active users are 13 to 17, and an additional 36 per cent are 18 to 24.) The curated approach of Discover helps ensure fake news can’t get a toehold on Snapchat.

Still, kids’ ease with technology doesn’t automatically mean they’re media literate.

“On an anecdotal level, the kids are highly informed of what’s going on,” notes Shannon Howson, a geography teacher at Ursula Franklin Academy in the West End of Toronto whose lessons frequently deal with current events. “They’re often keeping me abreast on issues.” Still, she said, she has to remind students to think “about the validity of sources, knowing the bias and the skew of your sources and knowing if they’re reputable. The kids have no concept of that.”

Educators used to teach kids how to find information. But with news and other information now flooding their phones 24 hours a day, the focus, says Jim Blackwood, a teacher-librarian at Jean Augustine Secondary School in Brampton, Ont., is on “how to critically analyze that information, and to provide the skills to discern what is trustworthy.”

“If I were to ask students to do research on a particular topic, they’re not necessarily going to a source directly. They’re going to Google, right?” he notes. “They run the risk of clicking onto advertisements and being directed somewhere perhaps they shouldn’t have gone, or to information that isn’t necessarily reputable.”

The Common Sense Media study found that kids have difficulty separating fake news from the real stuff flowing through their streams. Many of them don’t seem to be trying very hard: 31 per cent of kids who use social media platforms said they pay either “little” or “no attention” to the sources of stories they see there.

But they’re a skeptical bunch: According to the study, while 66 per cent of kids 10 to 18 put “a lot” of trust in the information they receive from family members, only 25 per cent have the same level of trust in news organizations. (Mind you, that still puts the media above friends, who are only trusted “a lot” by 17 per cent of kids.)

If the news media already had a problem with their reputation before the U.S. election last year, all of the attention on fake news has now put the issue at centre stage.

That’s created both an urgent need for education and a juicy opportunity for media outlets to woo audiences. In the United States, the small non-profit News Literacy Project last year launched a comprehensive online program for teachers, at checkology.org, to help train students to think critically about the nature of credible information.

And smart outlets are building trust with audiences by learning how to speak directly to them.

Teen Vogue’s move to serious news coverage was the brainchild of Phillip Picardi, Vogue’s 26-year-old digital editorial director, who told his bosses he knew how to increase the site’s traffic from two million unique users a month to 10 million.

“I said, that’s pretty simple: You just talk to teenagers about what they actually talk about, and about their lives,” he says. In addition to the political coverage – “the first time the brand had ever talked about an election cycle, or police brutality in such kind of frank terms” – Picardi launched a Wellness section. “That was the first time we talked about masturbation, reproduction, [the morning-after pill] Plan B, etc.”

Teens, he explained, are already talking about world events – especially during distressing moments such as the May 22 attack on Ariana Grande’s concert in Manchester, England. They’re “trying to make sense of their place in the world, and of what’s going on in the world, and so they need a place to learn how to do that in a non-judgmental way that gives them the background information they need, and also speaks their language,” he says. If Teen Vogue doesn’t give that to them, they can easily go elsewhere. Last November – the month of the election – the site attracted 9.4 million unique users.

The independent news outlet The Young Turks became a progressive powerhouse over the last U.S. election cycle – it has one of the top-ranked News and Politics channels on YouTube – in part by telling viewers that its corporate-owned competitors such as MSNBC weren’t giving them the full truth.

“Especially with the young people who are connected to the Internet, they look everything up, they realize we’re providing coverage on issues that aren’t provided anywhere else,” says Steve Oh, the company’s chief business officer. (On Tuesday, The Young Turks announced it had received $20-million (U.S.) in new funding, including an investment from WndrCo, the new mobile-entertainment holding company founded by Jeffrey Katzenberg.)

“Right now, we’re perceived as being progressive and to the left, but with the new generation, the teens, the tweens and the millennials, we’re as mainstream as they can be. We hit them right dead in the centre for their views and their perspectives.”

Teen Vogue’s Picardi cautions that, while young teens now have instantaneous access to news and events unfolding daily, they may not be fully equipped to handle what they encounter. “As journalists, we’re feeling [overwhelmed],” he says. “We’re constantly chasing these stories that are about brutality – gay men being persecuted in Chechnya, or in Indonesia. A lot of the material that we’re dealing with is, frankly, hard to read. If we’re feeling this as journalists, we can only imagine how teenagers are feeling, especially if they’re getting this unfiltered access.”

Recently, said Picardi, Teen Vogue has been counselling readers on how to deal with the deluge. “We have a lot of coverage … that’s about how to take a break from the news and what to do if the news is stressing you out or traumatizing you. I think that’s a conversation that more classrooms and parents should be having with their kids.”

The Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, Aug. 09, 2017 3:29PM EDT
Last updated Thursday, Aug. 10, 2017 1:16PM EDT