Bad News About Youth Boosts Elders' Esteem

Study Shows Older People See Rise in Self-Esteem When Reading Negative News on Youth

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on September 01, 2010
From the WebMD Archives

Sept. 1, 2010 -- People over 50 get a self-esteem boost when they read negative news about young adults, a study shows.

Researchers also say young people, when given the choice, would rather read about people their own age and aren't very interested in stories about their elders, whether the articles are positive or negative.

"Our results reflect that the younger readers did not perceive older people as all that relevant," study researcher Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, PhD, of Ohio State University, tells WebMD by email. "They're more concerned with figuring out who they are and where they stand, and those in the same age group appear to provide the relevant comparisons for that."

Knobloch-Westerwick and co-researcher Matthias R. Hastall, a PhD student at Zeppelin University in Friedrichshafen, Germany, studied 276 adults, including 98 between ages 55 and 60 and 178 between ages 18 and 30. The participants were shown what they were told was a test version of a new online news magazine.

Each was given a limited amount of time to look over either a negative or positive version of 10 pre-selected articles. Each article was paired with a photograph depicting someone of the older or younger age group.

Positive and Negative Spin

The experiments were done in a computer lab. Each story focused on one person, but there were two versions -- one that had a positive spin and the other a negative one. The study participants were offered just one of the two versions.

In addition, those in the study were told they wouldn't have time to read all the stories and were instructed to click on the ones they found interesting. The participants were given a random mix of positive and negative stories about both younger and older people.

Older participants were more likely to choose negative articles about younger people, but didn't show a stronger preference for either positive or negative stories about people in their own age group.

Younger people showed low interest in stories about older people, regardless of whether the articles were positive or negative. And they chose to read more positive stories about people in their own age group than negative articles about other young people, Knobloch-Westerwick says.

After the participants finished browsing and clicking, they filled out a short questionnaire aimed at measuring their self-esteem. Knobloch-Westerwick says the younger people showed no differences in self-esteem, based on what they'd read.

But the more that older people read negative stories about younger people, the higher their self-esteem tended to be.

"Now we know why older people liked reading about the younger people -- they were looking for negative stories about them," she says in a news release. "Our new results go along with other research showing that people's social identity helps shape what media messages we choose. Age is just one type of social identity which may affect media choices."

Youth-Focused Culture

All 276 people in the study were Germans, but Knobloch-Westerwick tells WebMD that nationality doesn't really matter because both the U.S. and German cultures are youth-focused.

"I am convinced it would be the same, if not more extreme, in the U.S." she says, adding that her view is "just my personal impression that the emphasis on youth is greater in the U.S."

She says age "is just one criterion by which people may feel different from others" because "it helps with putting up with aspects of your life where you haven't exactly hit the jackpot, at least in comparison to others."

"Our findings show that older people consume news selectively to bolster a positive view of themselves and their own social group," she tells WebMD.

She says she has shown in previous research that "people selectively attend to media messages that align with their political viewpoints, which, in turn, strengthens their self-perceptions as a 'conservative' or 'liberal.'"

In both cultures, youth is considered important for society and older people tend to be portrayed in a negative light, she says.

Because older people know this, reading negative stories about younger people, who enjoy a higher status in society, may make those over 50 feel better about themselves, she says.

The study is published in the September 2010 issue of TheJournal of Communication.

Show Sources


News release, Ohio State University.

Knobloch-Westerwick, S. The Journal of Communication, September 2010.

Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, PhD, Ohio State University.

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