The nation's young people may have more education than their elders. They may make their parents look like idiots at a computer keyboard. But when it comes to news and public affairs, 18-to-29-year-olds are next to know-nothings, according to a study released yesterday.

In the survey, labeled "The Age of Indifference," the Times Mirror Corp. (which owns the Los Angeles Times and the Baltimore Sun, among others) said yesterday that young Americans "know less and care less about news and public affairs than any other generation of Americans in the past 50 years."

The survey, which analyzed 12,000 sample interviews from May 1989 to March 1990 and compared them to similar surveys dating back to the 1940s, found that young Americans were about as well-informed as their elders on most issues -- until about 1975.

In the past 15 years, however, the survey found "a generation that votes less, cares less, and reads newspapers less ... and is less critical of its leaders and institutions than young people in the past."

Only sports and the abortion issue light young fires, the survey said. In these two areas, young people match older groups in their interest level, according to the study, which was produced by Times Mirror Center for the People & the Press. The center, which is located in Washington, was established last spring to study press issues and survey readers about their interest in various news stories.

The director of the survey, Andrew Kohut, said that he believed the lack of interest among the young can be traced to the disillusionment that began during the Watergate and Vietnam eras. The education system also may have "devalued" current affairs, he said.

"And there is another coincidental change. I can't say it's a cause and effect, but over this period of time we have gone from a population reading the news to one that watches it," said Kohut. "I'm not a cognitive psychologist, but I think you get more recall when you read something than when you see it."

Other experts who have been studying the same age group said they had not yet seen the Times Mirror report, but they expressed doubts about some of Kohut's conclusions.

"I can't dispute the findings without studying them, but I just question whether we can indict the entire young generation because of them," said Albert E. Gollin, vice president and director of research for the Newspaper Advertising Bureau in New York.

"An argument can be made that the sheer glut of information and the din of noise {from so many news programs} coming at people, young people in particular, make it more difficult for them to respond to such" a survey, Gollin said.

"I would be especially hesitant to blame television for this," said Russell Neuman, director of the communications research group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab. "Both my understanding and my hope are that this is a temporary phenomenon."

Kohut and others suggested that the Times Mirror study and other similar surveys could cause news organizations to begin scaling down "hard" news about public affairs and using more "soft" news about people or trends to attract younger readers and viewers.

"There is a growing concern among newspaper editors and television news producers that hard news about politics and world affairs, which they consider to be their franchise, is not seen as important to the younger generation of readers and TV watchers," said Gollin. "These findings will certainly feed the debate in news circles."

Kohut noted that when the Berlin Wall opened last November -- an event that news aficionados called the story of the decade -- only 42 percent of those under 30 were absorbed by the story, according to the survey. Less than half that number (19 percent) said they were very interested in news about Romania -- even including the execution of Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife.

"The ultimate irony of the Times Mirror findings is that the Information Age has spawned such an uninformed and uninvolved {younger} population," said Kohut.