THE BLOG
09/17/2014 05:18 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2014

News For High Schools: Digital Media Plus Teaching Equals Support For Freedom

Some experts say smart phones make young people stupid. Others say technology makes them smarter. Still others say the tool is not important -- it's how we learn to use it.

A new survey of more than 10,000 high school students lends support to that last view. Amid an explosion in social and mobile media -- their media -- high school students are supporting freedom of expression in record numbers, and are even more likely to do so if they also have had a class in the First Amendment.

During the past 10 years, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has funded five "Future of the First Amendment" surveys, each probing what American high school students know and think about our most fundamental freedoms.

This year, for the first time, American high school students show a greater overall appreciation for the First Amendment than do adults.

More students than ever before say they are thinking about the First Amendment. Nine in 10 say people should be able to express unpopular opinions. Six in 10 say the press should not be censored by the government.

What happened? One explanation: the digital age. In 2011, Connecticut researcher Ken Dautrich found "a clear, positive relationship" between social media use and support for free expression. He now finds the same link between digital media use and First Amendment support.

Student news diets are increasingly digital, social and mobile. In 2007, for example, only 8 percent of students surveyed reported consuming news and information daily through mobile devices. This time around, 61 percent do -- an all-time high.

As students add their voices to the never-ending news streams in cyberspace, is it any wonder they seem to know more, to care more, about the freedoms that make this possible?

That said, teaching still matters. This year's Future of the First Amendment survey confirmed that students who had a class dealing with the First Amendment -- 7 in 10 said they did -- also support freedom of expression in greater numbers.

Indiana's Jim Streisel, Dow Jones Newspaper Fund Journalism Teacher of the Year at Carmel High School, believes digital media and teaching work together. "If you're a kid who has always used social media, you're enjoying the freedom you have without thinking much about it," he said. "When you take a class, especially a media class, you start to understand what that means, how the First Amendment is behind the scenes."

Classes help even heavy media users. For example: 65 percent of the students who use digital news daily agreed strongly that people should be able to express unpopular opinions, but if they had a class, that support rose to 69 percent.

Teacher Streisel says it's important for classes to teach the both media literacy and the First Amendment. That's how high school journalism classes work. You create media. You learn about the First Amendment. You emerge a stronger supporter of rights but also responsibilities.

But many of today's classes that teach about freedom do it from the view of social studies or history and are not as hands-on. "In driver's ed," Streisel says, "we don't just show pictures of cars and say 'go drive one yourself.' We put an adult in there to help students learn. Social media is the same way."

Students deserve greater freedom. Most high school students say that First Amendment rights should apply to their school activities. But most teachers disagree -- if they can't Tweet anything they want to about their school, why should students? Understandable, but how can schools teach First Amendment values by censoring students?

Upon graduation, freedom-loving students may face some rude shocks. In this year's survey, majorities say they oppose having their online activities monitored by business or spied upon by government. Yet only 20 percent of the students (and 28 percent of the teachers) said they knew "a lot" about revelations that the National Security Agency collects vast amounts of domestic data from phone calls and emails.

Public opinion about the First Amendment matters. It's the context within which the U.S. Supreme Court interprets the amendment's meaning.

We know too well how volatile public opinion can be. After the 9/11 attacks, for example, adult support for the First Amendment plummeted. The public was willing to give up some freedom in the name of national security. Support bounced back, only to be sunk again after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.

Whether young people will turn their First Amendment support into more resilient social norms is still an open question. But increased education, along with the new generation's overwhelming use of social and mobile media -- forms of media it will shape as students grow older -- offers new hope that American values will live on in the 21st Century.

This column was excerpted from the Future of the First Amendment survey at www.knightfoundation.org