Youth and science, between YouTube and disinformation

“It’s time to reach them better because, like us, they’re surrounded by misinformation,” notes Roseann O’Reilly, President and CEO of the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI).

Especially since 40% of young Canadians now spend more than 4 hours a day on social media. “The pandemic has affected their habits. Away from their friends, they looked for information on Youtube (25%) or Instagram (21%) and not in the media,” adds Sébastien Dallaire, Vice President of Ipsos Canada.

CFI and Acfas unveiled the results of a national survey on the views of young Canadians ages 18-24 on science, conducted by Ipsos, during a virtual event on June 8. The survey was conducted online from October 12 to October 26, 2021.

We can read that 73% of young people follow at least one social media influencer who has already expressed anti-scientific opinions. Young men, more religious people and those with less education are at greater risk.

41% of young people even said that an influencer they follow has questioned human responsibility for climate change. “There are aspects of concern and we need to better support the scientific culture of young people so that they make informed decisions,” says Acfas director Sophie Montreuil.

The survey team categorized the 1,500 young people surveyed into different attitudes and beliefs. First there are the “supporters of science”: 17% of respondents agree that science is important for the future and for political decisions.

Two out of three young people in this “pro-science” category aspire to a career in this field and are surrounded by peers who share their views. Most importantly, “they are able to distinguish real science from pseudoscience and spot misinformation,” adds Ms. Dallaire.

Without necessarily being its supporters, those who have faith in science make up 22% of respondents. You have a less friendly environment (family and friends).

Finally, there are those whose opinions are in line with science, but who admit that they are not always able to tell true from false (20%).

On the other hand, those who question science and describe themselves as “independent thinkers” account for 16% of respondents. They use their intuition and trust that they can tell right from wrong. “They want to have ‘both sides of the coin’. Only 6 out of 10 young people in this group believe vaccines are safe,” adds Ms Dallaire.

There are still people who are unfamiliar with natural sciences: 25%, i.e. every fourth young person. They generally have less faith in science and are more likely to be misinformed and misguided. They usually share the opinions of their relatives and the influencers they follow on social networks.

“That’s just the tip of the iceberg of the problem,” said Eric Meslin, bioethics researcher and president and CEO of the Council of Canadian Academies, who was invited to comment on the survey. “This study brings up some obvious points that we already know because we have children who are born with a screen in their hands and struggle to navigate the chaos of social media. There are lessons to be learned and above all we have to ask ourselves how we can turn this into a conversation with young people,” asks the researcher.

Communicate science better

Should we rethink our approaches to communicating science and gaining the trust of young people? Chantal Barriault, director of the graduate program in science communication at Laurentian University, believes so. “We need to focus on how science is done and how it’s done. We were wrong when we thought we could skip this kind of discussion. It’s not enough to gain people’s trust. »

The pandemic represents an opportunity that must be seized, and we must create space for discussions with the public, in “empathetic conversations in the form of a dialogue in which we do more than just bring scientific data to the people”. We need to talk about what science knows at a moment X, “while remembering that it is a process in motion. And also think about the impact of bad information. »

Nevertheless, it is sometimes difficult to present scientific findings to a wide audience. It is better to think about segmenting the speech. “There needs to be different initiatives that are better suited to communities because we know that some populations have trouble understanding scientific discourse. It took us a pandemic to learn how to better serve the needs of our audiences,” said Sandy Baumgartner, executive director of the Saskatchewan Science Center and vice president of the Canadian Association of Science Centers.

Not to mention that the way information is gathered has changed. “You have to go where the young people are. We need to work in those spaces and find a way to build trust in science. One of the traces is to show our vulnerability and our sensitivity. As we’ve seen for the past two years, understanding virtual mode isn’t always easy, starting with Zoom. »

It’s time to look at where science can be communicated, stresses Anna Blakney, assistant professor at UBC’s School of Biomedical Engineering… and influencer on TikTok. “It’s the perfect platform to show what’s being done in the lab and to reach a diverse audience. It’s a direct conversation with people, in which trust is created in the hour together,” she presented on June 8th at one of the panels of this conference, which brought them together, with Sandy Baumgartner.

The new TikTokeuse admits to having learned a lot from these two years on this platform. It was an accelerated learning curve for her to master this type of video. “I’ve put links to the evidence, it’s not just my words: you can read the publication so you’re able to track down the information, you can ask specific questions, and I to inform you as best I can.” scientific evidence,” adds Anna Blakney.

Also for Timothy Caulfield, professor at the University of Alberta’s Institute of Health Law and author of numerous books on disinformation – including the most recent one Soothes You! — It is important to renew the dialogue. “Bringing isolated people around the world together, these social networks represent a powerful, more or less constructive, force. You have to be creative to pull people and young people out of their echo chamber where misinformation reigns. But creating shareable content on these platforms works. »

According to him, it is important that regulators such as Health Canada or public health departments communicate on these platforms (some are already trying to do so, as mentioned in our text here). “We also need to use the diverse motivations of young people (curiosity, wonder, experimentation) to multiply approaches while equipping educators and science facilitators. »

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