Digital Media and Democracy: How Time Spent Online is Training Tomorrow’s Active Citizens


2.28.11 | A new study finds that taking part in nonpolitical interest-driven sites online may serve as a gateway for youth to volunteering, community problem-solving, and other civic actions.

The new work comes as events have focused worldwide attention on digital media and democracy - from Egyptian youth mobilizing a revolution via mobile tools, to public workers in Wisconsin igniting worldwide support via tweet streams and YouTube video.

The study, supported by the MacArthur Foundation and the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning, surveyed more than 2,500 high school juniors and seniors from 19 districts in California beginning in 2005. Researchers followed up with 435 of the students after the 2008 election to understand how online activities related to civic engagement. 

Students were surveyed about how often they blog or use social networking sites to share information about political issues, work to change a law or issue, or campaign directly for a candidate or issue. 

Surveys also asked about their interest-driven participation online (such as fan sites, hobbies, games or sports). Teens in these sites may be blogging about topics of local concern, organizing gaming clans, and remixing and sharing music or video online. This interaction helps to improve their technical and communication skills, which could conceivably be used in voicing political issues or in joining with community members to solve local problems. Moreover, chat room and message boards are often places of political discussion.

Finally, the surveys also asked about youths’ friendship-driven activities, such as Facebook. In a sign of how fast things change in the social media landscape, Twitter did not exist when the study began.

“It’s hard to imagine a more pressing issue than the next generations’ involvement in our democracy,” said Connie Yowell, director of education programs for MacArthur.

The findings run counter to some popular misconceptions about teenagers and new media: that by socializing with their friends online, they are not meeting others with diverse viewpoints and that the internet promotes a shallow kind of activism where teenagers are more interested in virtual than real world change.

It’s hard to imagine a more pressing issue than the next generations’ involvement in our democracy.

– Connie Yowell, director of education, MacArthur Foundation

But according to this study, the opposite is true.

Even when controlling for grades, prior level of civic engagement and other factors that might influence civic action, the researchers found that when teens were involved in interest-based online communities, even when that interest be music or fan sites, they were more likely to do volunteer and community work with others offline.  [See this NPR piece for more on how fan sites can lead to real world activism.] Participation in these communities, however, had no effect on voting.

Taking part more directly in political online communities, either by blogging about issues or campaigning directly, was a weak predictor of later voting, particularly after taking college attendance into account. (College students are much more likely to vote than non-college youth.) It also had no effect on working at the community level on issues. 

Finally, friendship-driven participation online had little effect on community involvement, although it did predict voting. Perhaps peers talking about voting inspires voting.

Many have argued that the internet is just an “echo chamber,” that people are not exposed to a diverse set of ideas and positions. The study, however, find otherwise.

“[O]nline communities are generally more politically diverse than offline neighborhoods,” said Mills College education professor Joe Kahne, the author of the study, writing at the Huffington Post. “We found that participation in these communities increased youth’s overall exposure to divergent views on societal issues.”

The study also found that teaching digital literacy skills, such as how to determine the credibility of online information, is essential. Kahne continues:

Many think of youth as knowing all they need to know about the Internet and that adults have little or no role to play. But youth are not all digital natives. Our surveys indicated, that digital media literacy education dramatically increased students’ exposure to diverse perspectives and boosted the likelihood of youth online engagement with civic and political issues. Students who were required by their teachers to go online and get information about political issues or to find different points of view became more likely to use the Internet in these ways during their discretionary time.

Authors point out that though traditional markers for political involvement like voting rates remain low among young adults (just 23 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds voted in the 2010 elections), these findings suggest that there are opportunities to build on young people’s engagement with new media to foster more involvement in community change.

Authors also stressed the need for educators and parents to examine the subtleties in the ways kids use the internet.

“If we really want to prepare young people to be active participants in the society,” Kahne said in a video interview, “we have to be understanding the ways they’re engaging and participating with the new media. And we also have to think about ways we can support productive participation.”

A Christian Science Monitor story about the study discussed how educators are using social media in civics classes. The CSM’s Stacy Teicher Khadaroo writes:

Samuel Reed, an instructional specialist with the Philadelphia public schools, has worked with students on projects examining the relationship of digital media and democracy. One group of middle-schoolers wrote letters to district administrators, either for or against a policy of blocking certain websites in schools. They researched court cases and engaged in debates along the way.

“They were actively engaged in that discourse, which led them to have a lot of discoveries about being responsible citizens online,” says Mr. Reed, who also writes a blog for the Philadelphia Public School Notebook.

“As teachers we have to find a way to bridge – to meet the digital literacy with traditional literacies,” Reed says. “We need to see that there’s a wealth of creativity and opportunities in it, instead of ... demonizing social media.”

Similarly, Spotlight has written about educators and students from around the country who are finding creative ways to use social media to get young people involved in making change on issues they care about – from Chicago teens using digital media to respond to neighborhood violence or improve technology use in their schools to young New Yorkers creating an online organizing platform for grassroots activism.

You can read more about the study in these working papers.

The study was released by the newly formed Youth and Participatory Politics research network, which plans further study on the relationship between digital media, youth and political engagement.


Leave a comment

Comments are moderated to ensure topic relevance and generally will be posted quickly.

Commenting is not available in this section entry.