On Truthiness and Trust: Teens, Trust, and ICT’s

About the Author:

Denise E. Agosto

Denise E. Agosto

Associate Professor in the College of Information Science & Technology at Drexel University

Related to the concept of “truthiness” is the concept of “trust” — trust in information, trust in information outlets, trust in people as information providers.  In my research with teens and their use of information communication technologies (ICT’s) for personal communication and interaction, I have noticed a fascinating trend among U.S. teens: the increasing judgment of the trust value of specific types of information technologies.  This assignment of trust judgments to individual technologies can perhaps best be seen in the widespread teen perception of cell phones as being highly trustworthy for receiving and sending information, and landline phones as being highly untrustworthy.

This means that it’s not just the message sender or the message itself that serves as an indicator of trustworthiness, but also the particular technology through which the message is received and sent that leads to judgments of trust and truth.  Although most U.S. teens are avid users of information technology — cell phones and social network sites in particular — many members of this population express a mistrust of landline telephones and a corresponding hesitance to use them.  This mistrust is based on suspicions about the privacy and security of the telephone as an information technology, and it stands in marked contrast to adults’ widely held trust in the telephone as a reliable tool.

As proof of this growing mistrust, I’ll offer a few examples of teens discussing their views in focus groups that I have conducted for my research.  In these research settings, over and over again teens who call themselves “addicted to technology” and who keep their cell phones within immediate reach “24/7” to enable texting with friends and family at any time of day or night express a general reluctance to use telephones for verbal communication, especially landline phones.  Much of this reluctance stems from the view that landline phones pose greater privacy and security risks than cell phones, as can be seen in the following exchange:

Focus group moderator: Why won’t you use the house phone?

Male high school student: It is more private to use your cell phone.

Female high school student: You never know who is going to pick up the house phone.1

And as another high school student explained:

I don’t think I ever answer my house phone.  It rings a lot.  No one that I know or would ever need or want to talk to calls my house phone.  All the people that ever call my house phone, nine times out of ten, anybody who calls my house phone is going to be more of a problem for me than I want to deal with.  A marine recruiter calls my house every week, and American Red Cross called a couple weeks ago.

Another high school student described sitting next to the landline phone that hangs on the kitchen wall while working on his homework each evening.  Due to his refusal to use landline phones, he explained that: “My mom or my aunt literally has to reach over me to answer it because I just let it ring.  I won’t talk on it.”

To many adults this mistrust may seem irrational, but when viewed in light of U.S. teens’ prevailing ICT use practices and in light of historic societal mistrust of new technologies, it begins to make sense.  In contradiction to the popular media portrayal of teens as avid users of technology for technology’s sake alone, most U.S. teens tend to think more in terms of communication as the end goal of personal ICT use, rather than thinking of technology use as the goal in itself.2  Much of the popular narrative surrounding teens’ use of ICT’s further suggests a dangerous lack of privacy, security, and other risk awareness.  These “media panics” and their assertion that “The ‘MySpace generation’…has no sense of privacy or shame” are largely unfounded.3  In reality, many teens are at least partly aware of privacy and security risks associated with ICT use, and these concerns play a role in their technology selections for everyday communication and information seeking.

Nonetheless, this distrust does seem to differ from most adults’ perceptions of landline telephone use.  The landline telephone has long been a fixture of everyday life for most U.S. adults, but for an increasing number of U.S. teens, it is quickly becoming an unfamiliar technology and an artifact of the past, especially as more and more U.S. households are cancelling landline phone subscriptions and relying solely on cell phones at home.  With any new or unfamiliar technology, there often comes an element of societal mistrust4 — sometimes to the point of villainization — as we have seen recently in the popular media representations of social network sites as dangerous spaces where sexual predators lurk in wait of unsuspecting youth.  Teens’ mistrust of landline phones therefore reflects a normal human behavior stemming from a lack of familiarity with the technology.  It will be interesting to see how teens’ trust of landline phones, cell phones, and other ICT’s continues to evolve in the future.

Questions to Consider Relating to Truthiness and Trust

            This discussion brings to rise the following questions relating to trust and ICT’s as we move forward in our efforts to understand the concept of truthiness in today’s highly-networked information ecology:

1.  Do adults place varying levels of trust on different information technologies, platforms, and applications?  If so, how do adults’ and youths’ trust assessments agree?  How do they differ?

2.  What do these evolving trust assessments mean for studying the concept of truthiness?

3.  What are the implications for educating young people about information evaluation and about the nature of information in the modern information world?



   1 All student quotes come from: Agosto, D. E., Abbas, J., & Naughton, R.  (In press).  Relationships and social rules: Teens’ social network and other ICT selection practices.  Journal of the American Society for Information Science & Technology.

   2 Agosto, D. E., Valenza, J, K., & Abbas, J.  (2011).  Looking closely at teens’ use of social networks: What do high school seniors do online?  In D. E. Agosto & J. Abbas (Eds.), Teens, libraries, and social networking: What librarians need to know (pp. 13-27).  Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited.

   3 Livingstone, S.  (2008).  Taking risky opportunities in youthful content creation: Teenagers’ use of social networking sites for intimacy, privacy and self-expression.  New Media & Society, 10, 393-411, p. 395.

   4 Mallan, K.  (2009).  Look at me!  Look at me!  Self-representation and self-exposure through online networks.  Digital Culture & Education, 1, 51-66.


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