Teen Choice Awards and Michael Brown shooting: Teens divided online?

The Teen Choice Awards this weekend celebrated pop culture, while far from Hollywood, a black teen was shot by police outside of St. Louis. Two major teen headlines, showing two vastly different experiences. Will teens read both? 

J.B. Forbes/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/AP
A large crowd gathers at the candlelight vigil, Sunday evening, Aug. 10, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo. A few thousand people have crammed the street where a black man was shot multiple times by a suburban St. Louis police officer. The candlelight vigil Sunday night was for 18-year-old Michael Brown, who died a day earlier. Police say he was unarmed.

The Teen Choice Awards were held in Los Angeles this weekend, and celebrities convened to celebrate pop culture through a teen lens and make headlines for their fashion and photo ops throughout the star-studded event.

Case-in-point, Kylie Jenner, best known for the Kardashian family’s reality TV empire, celebrated her 17th birthday by attending the awards. Reports covered her look for the night and how to get it, and reported that she shaved the back of her head. Gasp!

Meanwhile, thousands of miles away in Missouri, an 18-year-old black teen, identified by family as Michael Brown, was shot by police over the weekend. Since his shooting, which has elicited criticism from some as unjustified, protests and riots have broken out around the teen’s St. Louis community. Media reports connect the shooting to other recent racially charged shootings of young black men, like Trayvon Martin.

These two stories couldn’t be more different, but they are what teens are reading this morning, via social news feeds and other online news. Or are they?

Could the way teens read online media, in addition to their personal life experiences, keep them from reading an important headline like that about the shooting of Mr. Brown? 

Rebecca Hains, author and Media Studies Professor at Salem State University, also a guest blogger for Modern Parenthood, points out that the teen response to the news depends on multiple factors, with race and personal life experience playing a big part in what teens read. 

When asked over email what teens might click on, given a choice between these stories, Ms. Hains points out that it depends on their own social media profile (what and where they are posting), their interest in both celebrity gossip and activism, as well as their own race or ethnicity.

According Hains, when looking to Twitter, the #IfTheyGunnedMeDown hashtag shows that black teens in particular are paying attention to the Brown shooting and sharing their thoughts on the news. 

She writes, “The #IfIWereGunnedDown hashtag on Twitter offers evidence that black youth are very engaged in the news about Michael Brown, in part because they can identify with him themselves. It's distressingly easy for many black teens to imagine themselves in Brown's shoes – and I'm sure parents are checking in with their teens to see how they're handling it.” 

On the other hand, the shooting might be too far removed from the experience of many white teens to register as high in level of importance, although the story could easily be considered by many to be more important than an awards show. Hains writes, “They may see the story as something about someone who is "other" – not part of their experience or world – and not understand that white people have an important role to play as anti-racist allies in calling for an end to senseless shootings like this one.” 

Beyond personal life experience, could personal interests online hinder the ways headlines reach teens? As teens look more to social media networks for their news, and those networks rely on algorithms that often show readers news based on their interests, could some news pass them by entirely?

Realistically, a teen searching for back-to-school clothes and fall fashion trends online, might be fed a stream of fashion news coming from the Teen Choice Awards and not the latest headlines from the shooting in St. Louis.

Here is where parents could be an important link to help adjust the view and make sure all the headlines appear in front of their kids.  

Mat Honan from Wired posted Monday about how he “liked” everything on Facebook for 48-hours as an experiment to see how it would affect his news feed on the site. He explains that choosing to “like” everything quickly turned his news feed into a stream of stories far from his real interests (because he didn’t manage to ignore stuff he disliked like we do in real life).

Mr. Honan writes, “Facebook uses algorithms to decide what shows up in your feed. It isn’t just a parade of sequential updates from your friends and the things you’ve expressed an interest in. In 2014 the News Feed is a highly-curated presentation, delivered to you by a complicated formula based on the actions you take on the site, and across the web.” 

If this is the case, how many teens could miss headlines because their online habits don’t induce Facebook's algorithm to deliver a news story about a young black man shot by police?

Honan’s piece underlines the importance of teaching teens how news – especially though social networks – is delivered, and how they need to go farther than their own news feed, to make sure they see the news.

Directing teens to dedicated news sites, and perhaps even network television news and a newspaper, could adjust their news diet to ensure all major stories make it through. This can be the first step in teens broadening their world view, and helping them see stories that have a bigger impact on their world than celebrity news. And when real news is delivered, teens have a chance to help make a real impact.

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