Young adults’ information behaviour during the COVID-19 pandemic: a pilot study
Joan C. Bartlett and Aaron Bowen-Ziecheck
Introduction. This paper presents the results of a pilot study exploring the information behaviour of young adults during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Methods. The pilot study data were collected using semi-structured interviews with five undergraduate students. Questions included what information was needed regarding COVID-19, where and how it was obtained, and how it was evaluated.
Analysis. Coding followed a thematic analysis approach. At this early stage, coding involved emergent open coding to identify themes within the data.
Results. The information most needed by the participants related to local policies and restrictions (e.g., lockdowns, mask mandates, university policies) as well as policies relating to international travel. The main health related topic was where to get vaccinated. Participants preferred government, university, and mainstream media sources, while largely avoiding social media. They reported various approaches to determining the credibility of sources, including relying on known sites, and prioritizing first-hand sources such as government and public health. Participants also reported that their credibility assessment varied geographically, with government and mainstream media more or less trusted depending on location.
Conclusions. The findings provide insight into young adults’ information behaviour, and provide the basis for the continuation of this study.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues into a third year, it continues to impact many aspects of daily life. With an increasing prevalence of misinformation, it remains important for people to find and use reliable, trustworthy information. This is likely to continue into the post-pandemic era. This work-in-progress paper presents the findings of a pilot study into the information behaviour of young adults in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is part of a broader program of research into information behaviour and well-being of young adults. The pandemic has created a novel and extremely dynamic information environment in which people must navigate within the ubiquitous presence of information (and misinformation). As similar information environments are likely to continue in the future, it is important to understand how people navigate them.
This pilot study addressed the following research questions. Within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic:
- RQ1: What information is needed by undergraduate students?
- RQ2: Where and how do they find information?
- RQ3: How do they evaluate the credibility of information?
Young adults are known to rely heavily on social networks and internet-based information to both seek and share information in their everyday lives, including health (e.g., Agosto, Purcell, Magee and Forte, 2015; Bowler, Julien and Haddon, 2018; Head and Eisenberg, 2011; Kim, Sin and Yoo-Lee, 2014; Lenhart, Purcell, Smith, and Zickuhr, 2011; Lin and Farnham, 2013). Yet this prevalence of use and perceived competence does not necessarily correspond to proficiency; the ability to find, critically evaluate, and use information found to be quite poor (e.g., Gross and Latham, 2013; S.-C. J. Sin, 2015), often to the point of inadvertently sharing misinformation (Chen, Sin, Theng and Lee, 2015; Kim and Sin, 2016). When the reliability of social media information is evaluated, the people posting or sharing the information, or the website or app, are considered as markers of credibility, rather than the information itself (Bowler, et al., 2018; S.-C. J. Sin, 2016; S. C. J. Sin and Kim, 2014). Our previous work found that the resources most frequently used for finding health information were not those judged to be most credible (Bartlett, 2020; Bartlett, Bowen-Ziecheck, Kumah and Beheshti, 2019).
Within the context of COVID-19, social media and news websites were found to be most frequently used among university students in Portugal (Rosario, et al., 2020), while students in Germany were found to prefer news and government sites (Dadaczynski, et al. 2021). A survey of Canadian adults found Canadian government and news sites to be most frequently used, and judged to be credible, while social media, and family and friends were deemed less credible and less used (Parsons Leigh, et al., 2020). Similar preferences for mainstream media and government sources were found in Australian adults (Lupton and Lewis, 2021). Use of social media by students was seen to be associated with low ability to critically appraise information (Dadaczynski, et al., 2021).
The pilot study used semi-structured interviews with young adults. Participants were eight undergraduate students from McGill University (6 identified as female; 2 as male) aged 18-21. Three were Canadian students; 5 were international. They were at various stages in their undergraduate studies (2 U0 (preliminary year of study for students from outside of Quebec), 2 U2 (second year), and 4 U3 (third year)), and from the Faculties of Arts (5), Arts and Science (2), and Education (1). Participants were recruited through notices on student online bulletin boards. Data collection took place during the two waves of the Omicron COVID-19 variants, with corresponding limitations to in-person activities on campus, and in the community.
The semi-structured interview guide centred around the students’ information needs relating to COVID-19, asking what they considered to be important or relevant to them, and what they needed or wanted to know. Participants discussed how they looked for and found information, and what they did with the information they found. The interviews also addressed the issue of encountering COVID-19 misinformation, how they determined the credibility or trustworthiness of the information, and how they filtered out misinformation.
Given the pandemic restrictions on in-person research, interviews took place remotely using the WebEx platform. Ranging in length from 35 to 60 minutes, interviews were audio recorded and transcribed.
Coding followed a thematic analysis approach. At this preliminary stage of data analysis, this involved open coding, with codes emerging from the data. The coding scheme remains in progress, as new codes continue to emerge from the ongoing data collection. Once the set of codes has stabilised, we will conduct both intra- and inter-rater reliability tests to ensure consistency within and among coders.
Participants reported wanting or needing information about a variety of COVID-19 related issues. They all reported finding out about the local situation, current public health measures; all international students were interested in international travel. Most did not seek information regarding health issues such as symptoms or vaccination.
Locally, participants needed to know what public health guidelines were in place (e.g., lockdowns or mask mandates), local policies specific to the university (e.g., remotely administered classes or exams), and the implementation of public health guidelines on campus.
The international students were all interested in whether travel to and from their home country was permitted (by either country), and what policies were in place. For some students, there were also concerns about domestic travel, either within the country of study, and/or their home country. Their information needs ranged from knowing the epidemiological status in both countries, entry restrictions (e.g., only to citizens or permanent residents), and testing and quarantine requirements. Government sites, from each relevant jurisdiction, were the preferred source of information; these were considered the most reliable and up-to-date sources.
'I'd want to only get information about that from like the government because obviously planes cost a lot and plane tickets, like they're really expensive. So you don't want to get information from like some second-hand source and then go there and find out you're not allowed in.' (P3)
Most participants reported not needing health information, with the exception of where to get vaccinated. One participant, who had had COVID-19, said that she’d contacted a family member, who was also a health professional, for information and advice – the important factor was that the individual was a health professional.
Government and university sources were the most frequently cited information sources used by the participants, a finding consistent with their most commonly reported need for up-to-date and reliable information on local public health regulations, epidemiological status, and travel regulations.
An interesting finding was that not all government sources were considered equally reliable, with participants making distinctions among governments and countries. Two noted specific concerns regarding government information from their home countries, indicating that they would trust government sources from the country where they were students, but wouldn’t rely on government information from their home country and compared it to propaganda. A similar geographic distinction was made regarding mainstream media sources, which were generally considered to be reliable in the country of study. But, as one participant stated with reference to her home country, ‘mainstream media becomes like spam’ P4.
Participants reported that they hadn’t encountered significant issues with misinformation, but that they had strategies in place to identify and avoid misinformation. One participant opted to avoid social media altogether.
'...staying completely away from social media to get my health information...a lot of these platforms are kind of generated to I guess, get views rather than and have any kind of accuracy. So the main one, the main way I stay away from that is by staying away from social media.' (P1)
Those who used social media, employed strategies including preferring information posted by a friend or another reliable person, or verifying the information using known, reliable sources. One participant also looked for characteristic features of a posting, including exaggeration or a polarised perspective, that would flag it as misinformation.
'To me, normally, when it's exaggerated a lot to me. That's, to me that looks like misinformation,...if I see like, there's an older video of that event, and then I've seen that when I see a headline that has completely blown out of proportion...if it's too polarised in both different ways, then I kind of think of it as misinformation.' (P4)
Although not explicitly included in the interview guide, participants reported instances of passive information seeking and information encountering. One indicated that there wasn’t a need to actively seek information about public health measures, since that information was so prevalent.
'I didn't really look up like public health guidelines...I'd never really needed to look them up like they're in your face everywhere.' (P3)
Others reported encountering information that prompted active information seeking and ultimately decisions on vaccination.
'...coincidentally, because I was looking at an article about how many vaccinations had been performed in Quebec...I noticed that I was also eligible. So then I just went to the Montreal website, and I just signed up.' (P3)
The most dramatic instance of information encountering was from one participant who was doing an internship placement in a government office in March, 2020, when the global pandemic was declared. She reported being immediately escorted out of the building.
'I got to understand the severity of the situation by literally having a visual representation of how bad it is. Whenever closing off doorways, hallways, and there were security personnel being like, don't go here. This whole office has COVID...I would say that's when I understood the severity of it, right?' (P4)
Participants compared their health information behaviour relating to COVID-19 to how they had addressed other health issues in the past. One noted less reliance on government information sources for non-COVID-19 health issues.
'I definitely would probably not rely as much on like government websites, because well, they wouldn't have any information on really anything besides COVID. So I probably rely more on like, well known websites for other issues. Also, I think, because, like other health issues are kind of less hotly debated than COVID. It would be easier to find, like reliable sources for them.' (P3)
Another participant noted a new reliance on verifying information found online with actual experience, ‘I think after this pandemic...I think I've begun to like double check...what's written on screen and what I've actually experienced’ (P4).
One participant indicated that they would like to carry their experiences during the pandemic into their future health information behaviour.
'I think there's this, this whole misinformation about vaccines and people being anti-vaxxers. And all of those things has really helped me weed out which people I will listen to...I think I will carry forward that kind of filtering in the future as for any other kind of booster, vaccine, pandemic, whatever sickness comes up.' (P4)
Participants reported having had some information literacy instruction in secondary school or university, although they generally did not apply those skills in their non-academic lives, including for COVID-19 information. The one exception was a participant who reported having received information literacy instruction on identifying reliable information sources during secondary school civics classes. Notably, he also reported a strong preference for known, reliable websites, and reported checking the website sources when selecting results from a Google search.
The findings from this pilot study indicate that within the context of COVID-19, the young adults used government and university sources more heavily than in other health contexts; their use of social media was quite limited, unlike other everyday contexts. These findings are more consistent with research specifically in the context of COVID-19. Participants’ choices show an awareness of what sources are credible, and a deliberate choice to seek out those sources. Likewise, they demonstrated an awareness of the limitations of social media sources, and the need to evaluate sources to avoid misinformation.
The geographic qualification to the credibility assessment of government and mainstream media resources suggests that geography should be considered as a factor in future studies. Rather than treating information sources as monolithic, it should be considered that a resource seen as credible in one part of the world (e.g., information from a national government), may not be so in other locations.
While the participants in this study did demonstrate some good information literacy skills, particularly with respect to their selection of resources, most did not report applying skills learned in the academic context to other aspects of their lives. The one exception was from information literacy learned in a high school civics class. With the strong caveat that this is based on a single participant, this merits further investigation as a potential venue for information literacy instruction.
Conclusion, Limitations, and Next Steps
At this early stage of the research, it would be premature to make conclusions or discuss implications without the full data set and complete analysis – data saturation has not been reached, and new findings are emerging. However, at this point we can identify trends that are beginning to emerge from the data. The limited results from this pilot study show that undergraduate students in Canada, a subset of the community of young adults, are mainly seeking information to support their day-to-day lives against the background of the COVID-19 pandemic. Local policies such as lockdowns, mask mandates, store closures, and vaccine availability were among the topics of interest, along with international and domestic travel. They reported little need for information about health decisions such as vaccination. The geographic qualification of source credibility was something not seen in earlier (pre-COVID) phases of our research, and one which merits further examination.
As a pilot study, there are many limitations to these findings and conclusions. The findings are based on only eight participants. The participants were drawn from a limited population of undergraduate students. The participants were skewed towards international students, female students, and those from arts/social science disciplines. This is not representative of the student population, all young adults, nor the population as a whole.
Some of these limitations will be addressed in the ongoing research. Sampling must ensure more participation of domestic students, students from other Faculties (e.g., Science or Engineering), and male students. The interview guide will be revised to explicitly ask about some of the unanticipated findings from the pilot study – the semi-structured format allowed participants to introduce issues without being directly asked. For example, passive information seeking will be explicitly addressed to understand how that fits alongside active information seeking. The geographic qualification of sources will also be further probed, particularly with international students, to determine if others share this varied assessment of sources.
We would like to acknowledge the invaluable contributions of the anonymous research participants. Thanks to research assistant Sofie Tsatas for her work supporting the interview process. This research was developed from a larger program of research, including the work of Dr. Jamshid Beheshti and Dr. Cynthia Kumah. Funding was provided by a SSHRC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council – Canada) Insight Grant to the first author.
About the authors
Joan Bartlett is an Associate Professor in the School of Information Studies, McGill University. Her research centres around information use and information interaction, particularly within health sciences and biomedical contexts.3661 Peel St., Montreal, Quebec, Canada, H3A 1X1. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Aaron Bowen-Ziecheck is a PhD Candidate in the School of Information Studies, McGill University. His research area is health informatics. Specifically, he is interested in how health care providers utilise information and information systems to improve the health outcomes for their patients. 3661 Peel St., Montreal, Quebec, Canada, H3A 1X1. He can be contacted at email@example.com
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