Contrary to popular assumptions, young people’s online activities result in them more likely to be politically engaged and to be exposed to diverse political viewpoints, according to a first-of-its-kind study in which more than 2,500 California high school students were surveyed, more than 400 of them over a period of several years. The findings run counter to at least two commonly held assumptions: “slacktivism” and “the echo chamber effect,” which respectively hold that the Internet promotes “shallow activism among youth,” and that the Internet makes “exposure to divergent political views unlikely.”

The study was undertaken by a newly formed network of scholars dubbed “Youth and Participatory Politics funded by the MacArthur Foundation and the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning.

“It’s hard to imagine a more pressing issue than the next generations’ involvement in our democracy,” said Connie M. Yowell, director of education programs for the MacArthur Foundation in the U.S. “Social media has clearly altered the nature of participation with implications for the economy, learning, and as we are now witnessing almost daily – civil society – both in the United States and globally,”

“We found that being part of online participatory communities tied to youth interests, political or not, exposes youth to a greater degree of diverse viewpoints and issues and is related to higher levels of civic engagement,” Mills College education professor and study author Joe Kahne was quoted as saying. “Both of these outcomes are good for democracy.”

Among its key findings, researchers found that for many young people:

  • Being active on the Internet leads to engagement with civic and political issues;
  • It was rare for young people to be exposed only to political perspectives they agree with online, though many are not exposed to political perspectives at all;
  • Teaching new media literacy, such as credibility assessment, is essential for 21st century citizenship.

Contrary to popular assumptions, researchers found that “youth engagement in interest-driven online communities was associated with increased volunteer and charity work and in increased work with others on community issues.”

Similarly, it was found that “individuals tend either to see many differing perspectives or none.” Only 5% reported being exposed only to political views they agreed with. Thirty-four percent said they didn’t encounter any perspectives at all.

“This study reveals how participatory political practices among youth are upending our uninformed assumptions,” said David Theo Goldberg, director of the system-wide University of California Humanities Research Institute and co-director of the Digital Media and Learning Research Hub at UC Irvine.

Pointedly timely in that its release occurs in the wake of popular uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, “Research demonstrates that many youth are disengaged from traditional forms of civic and political life but are very engaged with new media,” Mills College’s Kahne said.


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