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How can reading novels influence a teenager’s ability to tell real-world fact from fiction?

  • 5 May, 2021
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By Alexandra Patrikios

How does reading fiction influence teenagers’ ability to parse misinformation?

That’s the question driving a new research project from Emily Booth — PhD candidate and research assistant at the University of Technology — that was named the recipient of an international research grant earlier this year.

The Young Adult Library Services Association awarded Emily’s project the 2021 Frances Henne Research Grant to support her academic dive into how teenagers’ responses to misinformation on digital media platforms are influenced by the types of fiction they read.

The project builds on Emily’s PhD research, which explores contemporary Australian teenagers’ leisure and school reading practices, and was also partly inspired by two seemingly unrelated elements of her own life: social media, and mystery novels.

“I work as a digital social media research assistant, looking at conspiracy theories, and funnily enough, and a lot of them do have narratives to them. They’re not necessarily coherent, but they do have a story, with particular ‘characters’,” Emily tells #LoveOzYA.

“I was also reading a lot of mystery books last year, and I thought, ‘Well, these are all books where people are seeking out truth amidst misinformation.”

But when Emily went looking for existing academic papers exploring the topics of conspiracies, novels, and teenage reading in relation to each other, she says not a lot came up.

“A lot of the research around misinformation, especially relating to young people, is focused on fact checking and that sort of thing,” she says.

“But I had this idea of: ‘I wonder if there’s a similarity and how people respond to clearly fictional stories and the ones online that may be fictional and can maybe convince you to get involved in them’.”

Emily says a scan of existing studies about misinformation and involving teenagers didn’t suggest any in-depth exploration of the role of the arts as a tool for enhancing young peoples’ ability to discern what’s factually founded, and what could be a digitally rampant mistruth.

“I did find this one study which found that students who did high school elective subjects that were in arts areas — subjects like theatre, visual art, and so on — were actually better at discerning when misinformation was misinformation (compared with) students who did ‘hard science’ subjects,” Emily says.

“I haven’t seen anything else that’s kind of picked up on that link.

“That seems really strange to me. Because, you know, we always talk about how reading is what develops critical thinking, so it doesn’t make sense to me for all of the research on misinformation, or for so much of it, to focus on the fact checking and hard sciences side of things.”

On methodology: Emily’s research will take the form of an online survey that is open for 12 to 18 year olds who have read at least one book in the series Murder Most Unladylike (alternate title Wells & Wong Mysteries) by Robin Stevens, or A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket.

Everyone who completes the survey gets to cast a vote for a non-profit that is involved in supporting teenagers reading or literacy initiatives, including diversity in publishing.

Ultimately, Emily hopes the project will help illuminate the best, practical tactics for educating young people about how to make sense of the deluge of information that’s constantly flowing through our digital world.

“The more information that is out there in the world, the more we need to teach people the tools to get through it.”

Do you know a teenager who might like to participate in Emily’s research? Pass on this survey link.