Teens, Tech and Politics

by JenniferCobb on 02/27/2011

We know teens are on-line. A lot.  I see it with my own kids – texting, gaming, facebooking — often all while doing homework and/or watching TV.  Two new studies out last week examine the impact of all this activity on two important issues – civic and political engagement and exposure to diverse perspectives.  The primary message?  Being online is a fact of life.  It is what you do there that matters.

In these two reports, the researchers studied more than 2,500 junior and senior high school students in California between 2006 and 2008, in two different rounds of surveys.  They were careful to include a broad cross-section of demographic and academic characteristics and students from both large and small schools.  Both studies categorize online activity into three primary buckets – friendship-driven, interest-driven and politically driven.

The first study (The Civic and Political Significance of Online Participatory Cultures among Youth Transitioning to Adulthood by Joseph Kahne, Nam-Jin Lee, Jessica Timpany Feezell) reports that interest-driven participation trumps the other two categories in terms of both increased civic engagement and political action and expression.  The authors believe that this outcome may be related to the skills developed in forming, organizing and participating in groups that reflect one’s particular interests.  These are the formative skills needed for civic and political participation.  In fact, almost all forms of interest-driven online activities were strongly correlated to many forms of civic and political engagement, including volunteering, protesting and community building.  The authors even posit that interest-driven activity may be fueling the rise in online political engagement among young adults.

This outcome is a bit of a surprise.  One might have thought that the politically driven group would be most likely to have strong civic and political outcomes.  But, in fact, the results for that group were limited to increased campaign participation and political expression.  This group did not even report higher voting rates.  The online activity that led to the lowest levels of civic and political engagement was the friendship-driven group.  The authors write, “The use of blogs and social media to communicate with family and friends, for example, was unrelated to all civic and political outcomes when controls were included in the models. Friendship-driven use of e-mail and messaging was also unrelated to our measures of civic participation, political action and expression, and campaign participation. Interestingly, however, friendship-driven use of e-mail and messaging was the only online practice that was related, if modestly, to voting.”

Using the same data, the authors also examined the question of diversity.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, exposure to diverse opinions is critical to a healthy democracy.  The second study (Youth Online Activity and Exposure to Diverse Perspectives by Joseph Kahne, Ellen Middaugh, Nam-Jin Lee, Jessica Timpany Feezell) cites fears in both academia and the general culture that online life is restricting our exposure to diverse opinions, creating hermetic echo chambers of social experience or, what Nicholas Negroponte termed the “Daily Me”, where one consumes only those topics that are already of interest.

Contrary to the fears, the authors find that “most youth are exposed to views that align with and diverge from their own, or they are exposed to neither.”  57% were exposed to both compatible and different views; 34% reported they were exposed to neither.

Both politically driven and nonpolitical interest-driven activities are linked to exposure to diverse perspectives.  Friendship-driven activities were not linked to exposure to diverse points of view and neither were those engaged in video game play or participatory gaming environments such as World of Warcraft.  The authors write, “Given that nonpolitical interest driven participation prompts exposure to diverse civic and political perspectives, one might have assumed that networked socializing and participatory gaming would as well. We find, however, that they do not. It appears that the culture and norms that surround participation on social networks and with video game communities neither facilitate nor constrain discussion of societal issues.”

These two studies provide support for what we already instinctively know.  What we do online matters.  The good news is that teens that are pursuing their interests online are learning many of the necessary skills for civic and political engagement.  They are learning to form groups, participate, communicate and find themselves.  These are activities that go well beyond signing on online petition or “liking” a cause on Facebook.  These are activities that reward engaged participation.   Encouraging our teens to pursue their interests online is helpful guidance in today’s media environment.

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