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Fact Sheet: U.S. Teens, Politics, and Information Literacy

This is the latest in a series of posts on teaching controversial political issues to students. The previous post in this series discussed how educators can choose controversial political issues ethically.

In December 2016, the Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research polled 13- to 17-year-old U.S. teenagers on politics and government, civic engagement, and information literacy. Here is an overview of the results:

Politics and government. Overall, teenagers have a pessimistic view of U.S. politics and government. About 8 in 10 believe the nation is divided on important values. Many teenagers find little commonality with those who are different from them, such as people who live in other geographical areas and people in other political parties. Additionally, a majority of teenagers have negative views on the system and functioning of government, including how political leaders are chosen and the ability of government to solve problems. Despite teenagers’ pessimistic views, over half believe that the American dream still exists, and most have positive or neutral views on the future of the country.

Civic engagement. Teenagers have a high level of civic engagement. In fact, almost 9 in 10 teenagers have taken part in at least one civic activity, the most popular being volunteering and raising money for a cause. Fewer teenagers are involved politically, perhaps unsurprisingly given their age and their views on politics and government. A majority have never expressed their political beliefs online, and a whopping 88 percent have never participated in a protest, march, or demonstration (though this may have changed some given the high number of protests, marches, and demonstrations in recent months).

Information literacy. A majority of teenagers reported learning about information literacy skills in school, but a sizable number of teenagers said they have not. One-third had never discussed how to evaluate the trustworthiness of online content. Some 40 percent never discussed the value of evaluating evidence used to support opinions. And 42 percent never discussed how to find varying social and political viewpoints online.

There are some lessons to be learned from this poll. First, civic engagement is high among teenagers, but this fails to translate into political participation. Educators should focus on teaching students how they can be a part of the political system and effect change. Second, teenagers believe that they have little in common with those who are different from them. Educators can help break down barriers and close this empathy gap by exposing students to different people, ideas, and viewpoints. And third, too few students are learning the necessary information literacy skills, especially as they relate to cyberspace. With the spread of fake news, educators should prioritize strengthening information literacy skills for the digital age.

Stay tuned for more posts in this series on teaching controversial political issues to students.

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SIRS Issues Researcher is a pro/con database that helps students understand today’s controversial political issues with editorially selected analysis and opinions that cover the entire spectrum of viewpoints.

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