Could Facebook make America smarter?

New University of Minnesota study finds social media engages young people in content better than traditional sites

Photo: Dr. Christine Greenhow.

MINNEAPOLIS / ST. PAUL — In an era in which 85 percent of American college students actively update Facebook profiles but more than one-third report paying no attention to current events on a daily basis, it’s natural that social networking sites could help educate young people on today’s most pressing issues. A new study from a University of Minnesota researcher found that a Facebook application focusing on social issues facilitated self-expression and critical conversation more than traditional news Web sites, suggesting new strategies for engaging young people in critical content.

"One key to engagement is finding young people where they already read, write and exchange views -- and piggy-backing on their existing routines," said Christine Greenhow, the U of M researcher behind the project. "Facebook is a place teenagers and young people already choose to frequent, are comfortable and willing to share opinions and eager to contribute to a discussion, which makes it a potentially ideal place to locate applications that create enthusiasm around education."

Greenhow, a research fellow at the U of M's Institute for Advanced Study surveyed, interviewed and observed 346 young people (ages 16-25) as they participated in a newly designed Facebook application called “Hot Dish.” The application, targeting environmental science issues and climate change, challenged members to engage with the issues by posting, sharing and discussing articles online, inviting peers to join and reaching out to take action in their own communities, in exchange for points redeemable for prizes.
Greenhow’s study found that users associated Facebook with a community, not simply a place to post thoughts. Hot Dish successfully facilitated substantive discussion that can be difficult to generate face-to-face, Greenhow said, while at the same time stimulating activism in the local community.

Nearly three-quarters (71 percent) of the group surveyed said they used the Hot Dish site to interact with like-minded people, compared to about a third who said they seek that interaction on a general news site. Users saw Hot Dish as more receptive to their views and contributions than they did other more general Web sites. Site statistics showed that the majority of articles on the site were actually read and users contributed more than two-thirds of the content. Users’ interest in the focal topic also increased.

Greenhow partnered with NewsCloud’s Jeff Reifman, developer of the Facebook application, on  a $249,529 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to study how young people engaged in a content-rich and topic-focused site designed within Facebook. Greenhow and her team studied young people’s engagement in the application by looking at their interest and knowledge development, community formation, online reading and writing practices and civic engagement/real-world impact.

"This experiment shows that you can inform and engage young people in the digital age by going where they are and offering the tools they use," said Gary Kebbel, Knight Foundation journalism program director.

According to a January 2009 Pew study, 65 percent of online teenagers have a social networking site. Meanwhile, another Pew study has shown that the proportion of young people getting no news on a typical day has increased from 25 to 34 percent since 1998.

"These findings present an interesting opportunity for educators and others who care about promoting the literacy and public engagement of youth today," said Greenhow. “We need to inform, educate and mobilize an engaged citizenry not only for the future of news industries but also for full participation in a 21st century democracy.”

Learn more about the research at

About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation advances journalism in the digital age and invests in the vitality of communities where the Knight brothers owned newspapers. Knight Foundation focuses on projects that promote community engagement and lead to transformational change. For more, visit

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About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. We believe that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. For more, visit