Teenagers and young adults specifically follow influencers and other accounts on social media to be entertained, informed or to participate in the conversation. Social media content creators on Instagram, TikTok and other platforms fulfil different functions for different motives of use and contribute significantly to opinion formation. Accounts of individual personalities offer orientation and have important identification and role model functions for their young followers. The accounts of traditional news providers are also appreciated and trusted by young people because they are considered independent and reliable.
These are the results of a study conducted by the Hamburg Leibniz Institute for Media Research as part of the #UseTheNews project, which promotes news literacy among young people in cooperation with dpa, publishing houses as well as public and private broadcasters.
For the qualitative study "Social Media Content Creators from the Perspective of Their Young Followers", in-depth interviews were conducted with 14- to 17-year-old adolescents and 18- to 24-year-old young adults. They were asked which accounts they follow in social media, which motives for use they associate with them and how they evaluate individual actors.
Four types of accounts can be distinguished according to their motives for using them:
- Content-focused, topic-specific accounts are used for entertainment and to pass the time.
- Content-focused, topic-diverse accounts are used for knowledge and information purposes.
- Person-focused topic-multiple accounts enable social proximity & insight, inspiration & motivation as well as communication & integration.
- Person-focused topic-specific accounts focus on individual personalities who are seen as having an identification and role model function.
and person-focused, topic-specific
accounts are definitely considered relevant for forming one's own opinion, as they offer facts and background knowledge to form a "well-founded" and "professional" opinion. These accounts are rated as particularly " reliable" and "trustworthy".
Significance of the Study for Journalism and Educational Initiatives
The term "influencer" is associated by the surveyed adolescents and young adults with characteristics such as advertising funding and a thematic orientation in the areas of beauty, fashion, lifestyle and fitness. Influencers are thus only perceived as one subgroup among many actors in social media.
"Attributing too much and too common relevance to influencers in general is not appropriate. Rather, it offers journalism the opportunity to position itself as an independent and trustworthy actor and at the same time to distinguish itself from advertising-financed content and personalities," say study authors Leonie Wunderlich
and Sascha Hölig
When asked about the opportunities and risks of cooperating with individual social media content creators and popular influencers, for example for educational purposes, the authors have the following advice: "These people should be selected who serve a specific genre or convey topic-specific knowledge and therefore fulfil a knowledge and information function and are considered credible and trustworthy".
Study Design: Qualitative Guided Interviews with Adolescents and Young Adults
Within the framework of the study, semi-structured guided interviews were conducted with a total of 22 adolescents and young adults (14 to 24 years), who were mixed in terms of gender, place of residence and formal educational background. During the interviews, which lasted a little more than an hour on average, individual account repertoires of the participants were created. In addition, visualisation aids and the method of "thinking aloud" were used to talk about the usage motives and characteristics of the social media content creator accounts that were followed. Transcripts of the interviews as well as further questionnaire and memo material served as a basis for the evaluation and analysis of the conversations.
The nationwide project #UseTheNews investigates the news use and competence of young people and develops new information and educational offers. In a News Literacy Lab, new news offers are designed based on the findings of the study. The News Literacy Lab is accompanied by journalism experts from the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences (HAW). In addition, educational offers, teaching materials and further training for teachers are being developed under the title Open News Education (ONE) in order to strengthen the teaching of news literacy in schools. #UseTheNews was initiated by the German Press Agency dpa and the Hamburg Ministry for Culture and Media. The project is supported by a board of trustees consisting of actors from the media and politics.