Heavy use of social media as a news source has left young Australians struggling to comprehend the complexities of current events, according to new global research that has implications for the way companies train current and future generations of workers.

Fully 16 per cent of under-35 Australian respondents in the newly released Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2022 – which included over 2,000 respondents from each of 46 countries including Australia – said they struggle to understand news reports.

That was compared with just 4 per cent of those 35 and older – the largest gap between younger and older respondents of any country surveyed.

More Australians now get their news from Facebook (31 per cent) than ABC News Online (26 per cent) and YouTube (19 per cent) than 9 News (16 per cent) – and while our social media news consumption is still low by world standards, report author and Reuters Institute senior research associate believes it is still affecting young people’s engagement.

“Young people tend to get the news in slightly more fragmented ways through social media,” Newman explained, “so maybe they miss bits of the story and it’s harder to pick up… key context that was previously carefully packaged into linear narratives by the mainstream media.”

“Digital and social media offer a much wider range of stories, but this environment can often be overwhelming and confusing,” he said. “The abundance of choice in an online context may be leading others to engage far less regularly than they did in the past.”

Many people are giving up on the news altogether, with a third fewer respondents in many countries saying they are very or extremely interested in news topics – and five per cent saying they had stopped engaging with news altogether.

Australians were more likely to have turned off the news, with 8 per cent of respondents saying they had not accessed news content at all in the week before the survey – above global averages but still behind the US, where reader disconnectedness has grown from 3 per cent a decade ago to 15 per cent this year.

We were also more likely to be actively avoiding the news, with 41 per cent saying they do so this year, compared to 29 per cent in the pre-pandemic 2019 survey.

Asked why, 36 per cent of respondents said news negatively affects their mood, while 29 per cent admit being “worn out” by the amount of news and 29 per cent believe news is untrustworthy or biased.

“There’s something about the way in which we’re covering stories that is in some cases affecting people’s mental health,” Newman said calling out a “negative agenda, or just the succession of negative stories.”

Implications for corporate training

Changing consumption habits affect the way people engage with new information: US thinktank the Pew Research Center, for one, has found heavy social media use makes readers less engaged and less knowledgeable about current affairs, less likely to follow COVID-19 coverage, and most likely to report seeing made-up news.

These trends have implications for the way that students and workers – particularly those confused or disengaged younger workers – are trained for corporate environments where process, compliance, and other types of education are critical requirements.

Many companies have particularly struggled with cyber security training, where employee ‘cyber security fatigue’ remains a real issue as executives fight to protect their systems and workers against attacks.

“Traditional cyber security awareness programs don’t work anymore,” Gartner senior director analyst Richard Addiscott said during that firm’s recent Security & Risk Management Summit.

The idea that “cyber security is everyone’s responsibility is not really sinking in,” he explained, noting that many employees “believe that the security team’s role is to protect them from their mistakes… and that security controls are viewed as a nice, soft safety net for insecure behaviour.”

Experts offer advice about how to address the situation, while cyber security firms have gained traction by delivering training in the way that social media has conditioned today’s youths to process information.

That means, for example, providing training in a ‘Netflix-like’ approach consisting of episodic videos, 60-second video game-styled shorts, Lego-based videos, anime, offbeat segments with relatable characters, and even a five-part miniseries.

Cyber security’s pop-culture nous may lend itself to creative spinoffs, but trainers are similarly adopting new tactics across other areas as well by providing fun training or working to gamify course material through role-play, discussions, polling, and other engagement strategies.

Yet with companies facing what Addiscott called “serious levels of employee complacency, born out of a prevailing attitude that security is just not my problem,” their long-term success remains to be seen.

The new Reuters figures highlight the scale of the ongoing challenge, with news companies and corporate trainers facing the same imperative to engage with Millennial and Gen Z workers that simply don’t consume information the same way as older workers.

The new environment, Newman said, “is a real challenge for media companies, thinking about how they can engage and attract those younger audiences.”