According to a Cornell-led psychology study, teens’ trust — or lack thereof — in the news they read on social media can be crucial in determining whether it contributes to or distracts from their well-being.
Researchers found that those who trusted the COVID-19 information they saw on Facebook, Twitter and TikTok were more likely to feel empowered, while those who were less trusting were more likely to experience it as stress.
Findings underscore the need for news literacy programs to help young people distinguish fact-based, trusted sources from misinformation and conspiracy theories, and foster a more nuanced understanding of how social media use impacts well-being and mental health.
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“It’s not just the sheer scale of social media use that will have this positive or negative effect,” said Adam Hoffman, an assistant professor at the Department of Psychology and the College of Human Ecology, adding, “It’s the nature and The way you interact with social media messages will have more impact on how it affects you.”
Hoffman is the lead author of The Importance of Trust in the Relation Between Covid-19 Information from Social Media and Well-being Among Adolescents and Young Adults, published March 23 in PLOS ONE. Nine co-authors are from North Carolina State University, the University of Virginia, the South Carolina-based non-profit EdVenture, and in the UK, the University of Exeter and the University of Cambridge.
Previous research on social media’s effects on well-being and mental health is a bit muddled, the scientists said, finding both good and bad influences. For example, some studies have shown that it can promote social bonding and self-expression, others that it promotes bullying and feelings of inferiority.
As the pandemic took hold in early 2020, daily exposure to negative social media headlines helped popularize the terms “doomscrolling” and, among those trying to escape stressful media, “news avoidance.” The virus that causes COVID-19 has also become the subject of rampant misinformation, dubbed an “infodemic” by the World Health Organization.
In this setting, the research team surveyed 168 students enrolled in an after-school science, technology, engineering, and math program about their engagement with COVID-19 news on Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok — the most popular news-sharing platforms that each have also been criticized for spreading misinformation. The ethnically and racially diverse participants, who ranged in age from 14 to 23 with an average age of 17, were asked how often they were exposed to COVID-19 information, how much they trusted it and how their well-being was measured in three ways : emotional, psychological and social.
Unexpectedly, exposure to Covid-19 news a few times a week on average either had no impact on well-being or was viewed as slightly positive. The researchers speculated that exposure to pandemic news made teenagers feel more informed about the virus and world events, even when it was difficult or depressing.
However, trust in the news proved to be a “driving factor” in the relationship: Higher levels of trust were associated with a more positive sense of social well-being — feeling informed and connected, part of a community — and, for some, with one lower degree cases the opposite.
Although trust can be good for well-being, “blind” trust in social media messages also has a potential downside, as a study has found that it increases acceptance of Covid-19 myths and conspiracies. For this reason, the researchers encourage schools and universities to actively train students in critical thinking and analytical skills needed to identify accurate information, especially on social media.
“Not only do we have to trust, but we have to trust credible news sources that are factual and verified,” Hoffman said. “It allows youth to be informed and have a positive sense of well-being and self, and that’s the best of both worlds.”