Digital Media Shapes Youth Participation in Politics: Social Media Are Changing How Youth Involve Themselves in Politics. Educators Also Must Change How They Prepare Students to Be Involved Citizens

By Kahne, Joseph; Middaugh, Ellen | Phi Delta Kappan, November 2012 | Go to article overview

Digital Media Shapes Youth Participation in Politics: Social Media Are Changing How Youth Involve Themselves in Politics. Educators Also Must Change How They Prepare Students to Be Involved Citizens


Kahne, Joseph, Middaugh, Ellen, Phi Delta Kappan


Oct. 11 was A Day of the Girl Child in part due to a group of 12-year-old girls in Maryland who used social media to connect with like-minded women in the U.S., Canada, and Africa. These girls, known as School Girls Unite, mobilized more than 70 girls organizations throughout the U.S. in support of a United Nations initiative to set aside one day a year to recognize the need for girls to be educated around the world. And their efforts continue. Recently, School Girls Unite delivered over 11,000 e-petitions urging action on the child marriage prevention bill being considered in Congress.

And they did it almost exclusively through email and Facebook.

Consider 18-year-old Michelle Ryan Lauto's campaign to protest school funding cuts in New Jersey. She sent a Facebook message to 600 friends saying that students should protest threatened school funding cuts and asked them to pass her message on. Ultimately, 18,000 students accepted her invitation, staging one of the largest grassroots protests in New Jersey's history (Hu, 2010).

Or consider the response to last spring's release of a 30-minute video by a San Diego-based group that exposed warlord Joseph Kony's abuses in Uganda. Within a few days of its posting, the Kony 2012 video on YouTube had been viewed more than 76 million times. A survey found that almost 60% of youth and young adults (under age 30) who knew about the video had learned about it through Facebook, Twitter, or other social media. Just as rapidly, social media alerted the public about questions about the accuracy of the video and whether the proposed actions made sense.

Outlets for youth activism and civic participation aren't new, but two things distinguish these recent examples from traditional ones: They are peer created and directed, and they rely on social media. Almost overnight, youth civic participation has become a different ball game. Social media is a phenomenon that could dramatically change how and how much young people participate civically, including voting. Schools will continue to play a vital role in preparing students to be citizens. But educators must be prepared to play by different rules and on this different field.

To better understand these new realities, together with Cathy Cohen, Ben Bowyer, and Jon Rogowski, we surveyed 3,000 youth between ages 15 and 25 as part of the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Youth and Participatory Politics. The Youth and Participatory Politics Survey provides one of the most complete pictures to date of how young people are using new media to engage politically.

New ways to engage

Substantial numbers of youth are engaging in political life through "participatory politics"--which is like traditional political activity because they address issues of public concern. But, unlike traditional political activity, participatory politics are interactive, peer-based, and not guided by traditional institutions like political parties or newspaper editors. Young people might start a new political group online, write and disseminate a blog about a political issue, forward a political video to their social network, or take part in a poetry slam. We found that 41% of all youth participated in at least one of these activities during the past year. This is the same percentage that said they voted, or said they intended to vote--if they were then under 18. It is just below the 45% who said they engaged in forms of politics more directly tied to institutions by, for example, working on a political campaign or donating money. In short, participatory politics are an important part of overall youth political activity. If we ignore it, we will miss many of the ways youth are engaged.

Those concerned about the future of American politics should consider how such social media and participatory politics could change the landscape. For example, participatory politics give youth independence from traditional keepers of information and political participation such as political parties, interest groups, textbook authors, and newspaper editors.

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