Teens, TikTok and new attitudes to truth

7 min
A teenaged girl with long, dark afro hair and wearing a winter coat sits on a bus and checks her phone.

When you’re talking to a friend or colleague – do you notice when they embellish a story a little? Or even tell you something that’s outright false? Most people like to think that they can spot a lie, but, ironically, the truth is that it’s really hard. And we’re not good at it. Which is part of the reason, at least, as to why we are so deeply concerned by online misinformation, ‘fake news’ and the surge of available tools which can – and do – enable the proliferation of both.

Of course, there is nothing new about the desire to manipulate audiences with misleading information – there have been plenty of examples throughout history. And we have been passing gossip and juicy titbits to each other since… well, forever. But today we are at a heady and troubling intersection when it comes to truth. Firstly, we have more information platforms available to us than ever before, and within those are literally millions of ‘channels’ to choose from. Secondly, they are real-time, always on and almost permanently by our sides or in our hands. And, finally (and most worryingly), most of it is unregulated, so anyone can say almost anything. Depending on where they say it, of course.

This is a problem for everyone, but particularly for the young, whose brains are exposed to a deluge of digital information at the same time as their pre-frontal cortexes are still developing. This is the part of the brain responsible for critical thinking and decision-making, so it’s understandable that they might be more susceptible to sensational or emotionally driven content. And, crucially, why they might share it.

Students at the Global Academy in West London are among the most media-savvy teenagers you could meet, but even they have a near-constant internal fact check happening when they use their social media. They describe using established broadcasters, such as the BBC, as their sources of truth, while places like TikTok and Instagram are for checking the temperature on the opinions of their peers and influencers. “There are places on TikTok that explain the story, then describe it from different points of view. I feel like that has quite a big influence,” says 17-year-old Liberty. Her fellow student, Sophie, agrees. “Going through the comments, just reading different opinions, it kind of changes yours as well. It makes you think about what you actually believe in.”

A teenaged boy wearing glasses and a white hoodie lies on his stomach on his bed with his laptop open in front of him. He holds his phone in both hands and checks it.

For them, this is where TikTok can get tricky because they believe that at least some of their favourite influencers are leaning into subjects they know little about as to not would be detrimental to their brand. And this means that they tend to go along with the online majority – which has the potential to sway large numbers of followers into opinions that might not be based in truth. And while Liberty and Sophie feel confident in their own media literacy, they don’t have the same certainty for what they refer to as the “younger generation”. That is, the Gen Alphas of six to ten years old who now routinely have access to channels that weren’t available to them at the same age. Mainly YouTube, which they feel is the platform of choice for children, and certainly not their age group. “Phones are like the new toy, aren’t they?” says Jessica, aged 17. “Like, when you're younger everyone's got this one toy, that's the new thing and everyone wants it. Today, that’s phones.”

The danger here, they say, comes from the most classic tool of misinformation: the charismatic actor. Famous influencers, sometimes with millions of followers, who take positions that span from questionable to the deeply problematic. “I have a younger cousin who watches [a male social media personality known for his controversial views],” adds Sophie. “He's taking in all of this information, believing it and it's affecting how he runs his everyday life.” However, it’s likely that this kind of life influence hasn’t simply come from watching one video or a single creator. YouTube, TikTok, Instagram and pretty much all social platforms have recommendation engines that use what you like and view, to serve you more of the same. It powers a dangerous combination of the echo chamber effect, adding further voices that support what you have already seen and confirming collectively that they are true and correct.

But it also creates a kind of algorithm-driven groupthink, where large numbers of people subscribe and conform to one core idea, entirely disregarding any questioning of its values. There are plenty of these kinds of groups to be found online and the sheer number of people in them can be staggering – even if they don’t think themselves to be a ‘member’. Consider, for example, the way ‘cancel culture’ has permeated our understanding. Wherever it can be found, there is groupthink at work.

So, who sees their real selves? The almost immediate chorus from the students is, somewhat surprisingly, “my mum”.

Cancel culture and public shaming play a huge part in the day-to-day lives of teenagers and it’s no understatement to say that they live in fear of being misrepresented online – and especially now that it may not just be a case of being taken out of context. Liberty explains: “I feel like our generation is so much more aware. We don't post anything inappropriate – we know what to talk about and when not to say stuff. But there's now AI, so even if we didn't do it, someone could just deepfake it.” This even permeates into what should be considered private spaces, when teenagers are together, just doing what young people do. “We don't even joke about [outrageous] stuff with our friends in a group chat, none of us do that,” she continues. “And [if] I'm having a bad day and disagree with what you say, then you could screenshot it.”

All of this and more contributes to the sense that teenagers feel the need to be on guard in everything they say and do. “You just have to be so aware that everyone's always recording,” she adds. “You could be on the train and do something dumb, trip over, say something to the wrong person and be recorded and go viral. Everyone's recording at every given moment.” These young people understand that there is rarely a point where they might not be under scrutiny and, as a result, they are intentionally going through life only showing their public façade. So, who sees their real selves? The almost immediate chorus from the students is, somewhat surprisingly, “my mum”. “I wouldn't know what I would do if I didn't have someone to tell everything to,” adds Liberty. “Everyone probably needs therapy because no one wants to tell anyone anything.”

And they acknowledge that they are incredibly fortunate to have a strong network of parents, grandparents and educators around them who will sense check their ideas, offer them strong and legitimate sources of information and give them a space where they feel they can open up and be themselves without fear of negative consequences. But it’s a double-edged sword. While parents offer necessary psychological safety, teenagers should and must be able to forge an independent identity in the world and feel a sense of self that is authentic.

“I feel like technology's advancing so fast and it's making it harder to trust anything you see online,” laments Sophie. “It’s really dangerous,” says Liberty. “Because we don't want to grow up in a society where everyone's choosing to believe everything's fake and have to do our own research before we know something is real.” They are all deeply concerned by AI generated content – especially falling victim to it – as well as fake medical content and false advertising. But they seem accepting that there is little they can do about it except adopt a position of ‘fake until proven otherwise’, at least until some kind of regulation comes into place. As older teens, this is now deeply ingrained behaviour and while they are also fortunate enough to have access to excellent resources and expert voices at the Global Academy, they admit to being caught out occasionally. As we all do.

But there are glimmers of light. Organisations such as the News Literacy Project, plus creators like Sophia Smith Galer, Abbie Richards, Mariana Spring, and many more like them, are dedicated to educating around online misinformation, debunking false claims and raising awareness of the scale of the issue. Dan Evons of NLP offered the gold standard in advice when speaking to CBS news in December 2023:

“Slow down. Look for authenticity, look for the source, look for evidence, look for reasoning and look for the context.”

And if it doesn’t stand up to the lightest scrutiny? Report it. But certainly don’t share it.

Many thanks to the students and staff at Global Academy.