College Students and Cynicism

“It is really hard to know what is real in today’s society; there are a lot of news sources and it is difficult to trust any of them” (Anonymous student qtd. in Head et al., “How Students Engage With News,” 14).

Project Information Literacy, a nonprofit research institute that studies what it is like to be a student in the digital age, has published a number of influential reports that illustrate the rise in information cynicism among college students.

An “Increasing Avalanche” of Information

Avalanche icon

In 2018, they conducted a study of almost 6,000 students at 11 U.S. colleges (Head et al., “How Students Engage With News”), finding that:

  • 82% of students said that news is necessary in a democracy
  • 72% get news from social media on a daily basis
  • 68% said the sheer amount of news available to them was overwhelming
  • 45% found it difficult to tell real news from “fake news”
  • 36% said “fake news” had made them distrust the credibility of any news
  • “Deep political polarization” had made students “suspicious of biased reporting”
  • Students were highly critical of an “increasing avalanche” of news that “appeals to emotions rather than conveying credible facts.”

 “Super Cynical:” A Lack of Trust

Information cynicism was explored more deeply in their 2020 report based on student focus groups and faculty interviews at eight U.S. colleges (Head et al., “Information Literacy”). This study found that:

Cynical emoji with side-eyes and "meh" expression
  • Students were cynical almost to the point of believing their concerns and actions had little meaning, and that it was not possible to change things
  • An important theme was that “no news source could be trusted at face value” and there was a pervasive belief among students that they should “rely on themselves” to decide what to believe
  • Many students felt they had been taught to be critical of everything they encountered, which even extended to the authority of their teachers. One student noted: “We’re all super cynical and untrusting of information to the point that we want to find it out ourselves, so if a teacher says, ‘There’s five rows,’ then we actually look, and, yep, there’s five rows.”

Interestingly, the study found that as a whole, this lack of trust in traditional authority figures meant that trust was placed in Google as the arbiter of truth—a dangerous conclusion, given the nature of algorithms. One student who was also a parent described how he had tried to explain to his child that the bogeyman was not real, but his child had not believed him until a Google search confirmed it!


Sources

Head, Alison J., Barbara Fister, and Margy MacMillan. “Information Literacy in the Age of Algorithms.” Project Information Literacy, 15 Jan. 2020. Licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Head, Alison J., John Wihbey, P. Takis Metaxas, Margy MacMillan, and Dan Cohen. “How Students Engage with the News: Five Takeaways for Educators, Journalists, and Librarians.” Project Information Literacy, 16 Oct. 2018. Licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Image: “Avalanche” by Lorenzo Stella, adapted by Aloha Sargent, is licensed under CC BY 4.0

Image: “Suspicious” by Freepik, adapted by Aloha Sargent, from Flaticon.com

License

Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Introduction to College Research by Walter D. Butler; Aloha Sargent; and Kelsey Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.