Young people follow influencers because they expect them to bring tangible benefits to their lives. On TikTok, Instagram, and other platforms, the so-called social media content creators offer inspiration, serve as role models, and provide information that allow young people have their say - and thus make a significant contribution to shaping opinions and categorising news. The traditional information media, which have lost relevance among at least some young people, can score points with adolescents on the social web, provided they take the opportunity to position themselves there as independent and trustworthy players.
These are the findings of the study "Social media content creators from the perspective of their young followers. A qualitative study as part of the #UseTheNews project," conducted by the Leibniz Institute for Media Research/Hans Bredow Institute in Hamburg. The independent study, for which in-depth interviews were conducted with adolescents aged 14 to 17 and young adults aged 18 to 24, is published in the context of the #UseTheNews initiative, with which renowned media organizations and educational institutions, together with dpa, promote news literacy among young people.
To better distinguish between the activities of content creators on social media, the researchers identified four forms of offerings: "person-focused" channels run by individual influencers with either a specific topic or a variety of topics, and "content-focused" channels that are either devoted to a particular topic such as climate or - like ARD's "Tagesschau" on TikTok - cover the entire spectrum of events.
The study asked young people about their main motives for following social media content creators and sorted them into six different usage motives. They ranged from entertainment to establishing social closeness to providing inspiration, guidance, knowledge, or empowerment to have a say. The researchers found that young adults whose primary requirement is knowledge turn more to content-focused offerings, while adolescents tend toward people-focused channels from which they hope to gain identification and orientation.
"I would say that they influence my own opinion, and that's a responsibility they have to deal with." (Britta, 15)
The young people surveyed are not uncritical of influencers, for example when it comes to the question of the independence of creators who are financed by advertising or the issue of competence when social media personalities with a wide reach comment on complex political issues.
"I'm always on TikTok when I have nothing to do or I'm just bored." (Nicki, 20)
Based on the results of the study, educational offers and teaching materials are also to be developed that encourage self-reflection about the way young people themselves are using social media and a more conscious approach to media on the social web. Teaching news literacy in schools is one of the central goals to which #UseTheNews is dedicated under the title Open News Education (ONE).