Building Social Capital in Young People: The Role of Mass Media and Life Outlook



In this study we evaluate different models of media use to determine whether television and other popular media facilitate or hinder the development of social capital in young people. We surveyed a nationally representative sample of 14- to 22-year olds (N = 1,800) to assess the media–social capital relationship controlling for pessimistic life outlook. Consistent with Beck’s (1967) theory of depression, we hypothesized that young people with a pessimistic life outlook will be less trusting of others, will withdraw from civic activity, and will turn to media that have low cognitive demand (e.g., television shows) and avoid media that require greater cognitive resources (e.g., books and informational use of the Internet). Using structural equation modeling, we found that despite support for those predictions, total time spent viewing television remained inversely related to both social trust and civic engagement. However, model tests indicated that civic activity enhances trust by reducing time spent with television and increasing book reading. Furthermore, moderate consumption of entertainment television does not reduce trust. Hence, the results reaffirm the favorable relationships between social capital and media use, including television, in young people but continue to reveal adverse relationships with heavy television use.