Political Socialization: Modeling Teen Political and Civic Engagement

Article excerpt

Research on adolescent political and civic engagement has focused on a wide variety of socializing agents, including parents, school, peers, and the media. This study builds an explanatory model that connects macro-level (e.g., religion, education) and micro-level (parents, school curricula, and media) socialization agents. Using the ecological systems model of child development, the study shows a pattern of influence involving parents' political engagement and civic engagement, as well as teens' use of online political media. Media influence in the context of other factors is noted, along with the model's implications for further research on political socialization.

The past three decades have been a time during which many have decried an erosion of political and civic engagement among the citizenry of the United States.1 In addition to declining voter turnout, citizens eschew working for candidates and causes, choosing public service, and following public affairs presented in the news. This apparent decline has been most pronounced among younger Americans who have historically been the least engaged. However, Zukin, Keeter, Andolina, Jenkins, and Delli Carpini have made a compelling argument suggesting that "citizens are participating in a different mix of activities from in the past, and this is due largely to the process of generational replacement."2 Specifically, they argue that young people are "matching their elders in the public expression of their civic voices,"3 aided in part by the Internet. Civic and political engagement among the young has spread to a "wider variety of channels" that may require "different listening skills among political and social analysts."4 In sum, the trends identified by Putnam may be reversing as a generational turnover takes place, warranting consideration of new types of civic and political engagement among youth.5

The 2008 presidential election provided an excellent opportunity to investigate political and civic engagement on the part of adolescents in the United States. First, it should be noted that general declines in voter turnout since 1960 were reversed during the past decade with a 62% turnout in 2008,6 including the third consecutive increase by voters younger than 30 years of age.7 The 2008 presidential campaign featured unprecedented events, such as the nomination of the first African American and the credible bid for the nomination by former First Lady Hillary Clinton. A wide range of important issues, such as a collapsing economy, universal health care, and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, provided for spirited debate. Democratic societies encourage political and civic engagement among young citizens because they will become future political and social leaders. Citizens who are politically and civically engaged may have a long-term impact on society. Hence, understanding factors contributing to teens' political and civic engagement is an important area of study as youth emerge as voters and leaders.

Political and civic engagement requires an interest in the public policy sphere, along with an effort to learn about the underlying dimensions of important political, social, and economic issues. Not all citizens are willing to exert the effort needed to understand these dimensions of important policy debates. In this study, we address the notion of "generational replacement"8 by employing a theory of human development. We operate against the backdrop of ecological systems theory9 advanced by child development psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner to evaluate the relationship between both traditional and online media, along with the wider variety of channels that adolescents may utilize with respect to political engagement and civic engagement.10

Guided by ecological systems theory, we consider important traditional socialization elements, including parental political and civic engagement, school activities, and discussion of politics within the home. We also examine newer channels, such as teen online political activity, to understand how newer technologies may be relevant with respect to political and civic engagement. …