How New Media May Help Invigorate the Political Life of the Next Generation
7.2.12 | As we ready for election season, Millennials still get stereotyped as being politically apathetic, more interested in sharing the latest Kanye West Video on Facebook or gaming past midnight than in registering voters for Obama.
Yet a new study (pdf) finds that taking part in interest-driven activities using new media, whether it be gaming or sports or technology, lays an important foundation for political engagement down the line.
Researchers from the MacArthur Research Network on Youth and Participatory Politics surveyed 3,000 young people ages 15-25 on how they use the Internet or social media to engage in politics. They found that a substantial number of this generation are engaged in a new kind of political work that they call “Participatory Politics”—using new media to start a political group online or share a link to a blog post or video about an issue they care about with their peers.
Forty-one percent of youth surveyed engaged in at least one form of participatory politics, the survey found. Examples of participatory politics include:
• Commented on a news story or blog about a political campaign, candidate, or issue
• Forwarded or circulated funny videos or cartoons or circulated something artistic that related to a political candidate, campaign, or political issues
• Forwarded or posted someone else’s political commentary or news related to a political campaign, candidate, or issue
• Been active in or joined a group that has worked to address social or political issues
• Engaged in “buycotting”
Notably, the report found that youth of color are some of the most active users of new media to make their voices and opinions heard.
“Not only did we find that large numbers of youth take part in participatory politics, but, defying conventional expectations, black and Asian-American youth are the most avid users of new media for friendship and interest-driven activities,” principal investigator Cathy Cohen said in a release.
“Moreover, black youth participate in online forms of participatory politics at rates equal to or slightly higher than white, Latino and Asian-American youth.” The report finds that only 25% of black youth reported no engagement in any form of political behavior, compared with 33% of whites, 40% of Asian Americans, and 43% of Latinos.
Though some see gaming or spending hours on Facebook as mindless, youth, as we’ve written, are actually building a kind of “digital social capital.”
Young people who are engaged in doing the work they love online, even though it might not necessarily be political, are building networks and skills that will make engaging in this kind of participatory politics more likely down the line.
Researchers found that young people who are engaged in doing the work they love online, even though it might not necessarily be political, are building networks and skills that will make engaging in this kind of participatory politics more likely down the line.
“Youth who were highly involved in nonpolitical, interest-driven activities are more than five times as likely to engage in participatory politics and nearly four times as likely to participate in all political acts, compared with those infrequently involved in such activities,” researchers write in the report.
In an interview at Chicago Public Media’s The BEZ blog, Cohen said that though there has been much written about how institutional politics are changing in response to how young people are using digital and social media (both the Romney and Obama campaigns now have social media directors, for example,) the more interesting finding, according to Cohen, is that young people are creating new paradigms and “insisting on greater agency to build their own platforms and forums” to express their political ideas.
These actions, she said, though they look different from old school political engagement (they are outside of elite institutions and traditional political campaigns for example), should not be overlooked.
Young people are in dialog with their friends, they are sharing information about issues they care about, and are they using their own digital social capital.
Confidence in traditional political institutions and elected officials is at historic lows, the report notes. Participatory politics provides a new way to invigorate youth about politics and political life.
But young people need help. The report found youth still have trouble judging the credibility of online information.
With appropriate supports in schools and informal learning settings like afterschool programs, researchers say adults can help strengthen young people’s “ability and desire to produce media that is informed, persuasive, and distributed effectively.”
“We can also provide the bridge to allow young people to now use those same online platforms to engage in politics that are relevant to their lives,” Cohen said. “Which means focusing on issues that matter to them, it means the student loans crisis, it means the Trayvon Martin killing, it means what’s happening in their schools around education, it means letting young people define their own political agenda.”
Education was also strongly associated with participatory politics in this study. Participation was the highest for current college students and lowest among those who have only a high school degree. These education differences in participatory politics mirror trends in traditional political and civic participation beginning in the 1980s. The gap springs, in part, from opportunities to become involved and learn about the political process, locally and more broadly. As it has always been, college kids have plenty of ways to get hooked into political participation, whether it be on-campus organizing, candidates’ visits to campus, or professors who encourage political discussion. Working-class young people who bypassed college in the past had more opportunities to get involved in political work through jobs and unions, but that is less the case today as unions have declined.
The education gap in political participation, both online and offline, remains too wide today, and risks exacerbating growing inequality. Perhaps online social worlds and interest-driven outlets can be the new avenues for those who are not college-bound to get hooked into civic life.
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