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Mills College Professor Joseph Kahne Authors Study on Impact of Digital Media on Youth Civic Participation

Youth who pursue their interests on the Internet are more likely to be engaged in civic and political issues, according to a new study of student Internet usage by a group of civic learning scholars. Youth who use the Internet are also more likely to be exposed to diverse political viewpoints, the study shows.

Joseph Kahne, Professor of Education at Mills College (Photo: Business Wire)

Joseph Kahne, Professor of Education at Mills College (Photo: Business Wire)

The study’s findings run counter to two commonly held assumptions: first, that the Internet makes exposure to divergent political viewpoints (the so-called “echo chamber” effect) unlikely; and second, that the Internet promotes shallow activism (so called “slacktivism”) among youth.

In a first-of-its-kind, longitudinal study of high school students’ Internet use and civic engagement, researchers found that:

  • For many youth, their interest in the Internet translates into engagement with civic and political issues.
  • Contrary to popular belief, it is rare for individuals on the Internet to only be exposed to political perspectives with which they agree, while many youth are not exposed to political perspectives at all.
  • Teaching new media literacy such as credibility assessment is essential for 21st- century citizenship.

The study results were announced today by a new research network, Youth and Participatory Politics (YPP), which plans to further examine the ways in which the Internet and digital media are impacting democratic and political engagement, particularly among youth.

The formation of the YPP research network and the announcement of the study’s findings come in the wake of numerous high-profile uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East in which digital media, the Internet, and social networking appear to have played a role.

“Youth participate via new media in countless ways. Those habits and skills appear to be key supports in these protests,” said Mills College Professor of Education Joseph Kahne, the author of the study. “Both in the U.S. and abroad, so much civic and political life is online. We’ve got to pay attention to new media when we think about civic learning.”

Research demonstrates that many youth are disengaged from traditional forms of civic and political life but are very engaged with new media,” Kahne said. “Our study findings strongly suggest that there are ways to build on their engagement with digital media to foster engagement in civic life.”

First-of-its-Kind Study on Youth and the Internet

The study is unique, tracking hundreds of students over time and asking about online practices and civic and political engagement. Overall, more than 2,500 youth were surveyed and more than 400 youth were followed for several years. The participants came from a highly diverse set of 19 school districts throughout California.

The study, which was supported by both the MacArthur Foundation and the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning, examined three types of behavior: politically driven online participation; online exposure to diverse perspectives; and interest-driven online participation.

“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. The YPP research network is one of its three major new research initiatives.

The study examined, for example, how often students:

  • used blogs or social networking sites to share or discuss perspectives on social and political issues;
  • used the Internet to get information about political or social issues;
  • used email to communicate with others who are working on a political or social issue.

Findings Contradict Conventional Wisdom

A comprehensive analysis of the students’ responses found that:

  • Spending time in online communities appears to promote engagement with society. Many worry that youth who spend significant time on fan sites or in online communities tied to hobbies, sports, or other interests will become socially isolated. The study found the opposite to be true. Youth engagement in interest-driven online communities was associated with increased volunteer and charity work and in increased work with others on community issues. The Internet can serve as a gateway to online and offline civic and political engagement, including volunteerism, community problem-solving, and protest activity.
  • More youth are in empty chambers than echo chambers. Individuals tend either to see many differing perspectives or none. Few youth, 5%, reported being exposed only to political views they agreed with. However, 34% of youth said that they didn’t encounter any perspectives at all.
  • Many think of youth as knowing all they need to know about the Internet and that adults have little or no role to play, but, youth are not all “digital natives.” The study found that digital media literacy education dramatically increased students’ exposure to diverse perspectives and boosted the likelihood of youth online engagement with civic and political issues. This finding has serious implications for school and after-school programs as well as for parents. Many young people will benefit if they learn how to tap the full potential of digital media.

“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,” Kahne said. “Both of these outcomes are good for democracy.”

New Research Network to Expand Probe of the Internet and Democracy

Chaired by Kahne, the new research network on Youth and Participatory Politics will conduct national surveys and launch in-depth qualitative studies of the relationship between digital media, youth, and political engagement. It will focus on the potential of digital media to inform and empower youth and foster constructive collective action and social enterprise both in the U.S. and internationally. It will also examine ways to guard against the problematic dynamics associated with digital media, including the spread of misinformation, and the relationship between anonymity, responsibility, and ethics.

Supported by the MacArthur Foundation as part of its Digital Media and Learning Initiative, the new research network is comprised of seven noted scholars in political theory, citizen media, ethics, participatory culture, social movements, education, and interest-based learning:

  • Danielle Allen, political theorist who has published broadly on democratic theory, political sociology, and the history of political thought, Institute for Advanced Study;
  • Cathy J. Cohen, expert in American politics, African American politics, women and politics, lesbian and gay politics, and social movements, University of Chicago;
  • Howard Gardner, one of the world’s leading experts and writers on intelligence, creativity, leadership, and ethics, Harvard University;
  • Mizuko “Mimi” Ito, cultural anthropologist with deep expertise in the implications of how youth are engaging with technology and digital media, University of California, Irvine;
  • Henry Jenkins, expert on new media and participatory culture, University of Southern California;
  • Joseph Kahne, YPP Chair, expert on how school and new media practices influence youth civic and political development, Mills College;
  • Ethan Zuckerman, co-founder of an international force of citizen bloggers called Global Voices, leading scholar on the Internet and democratic engagement, Berkman Center for the Internet and Society, Harvard University, and MIT Media Lab.

The MacArthur Foundation launched its Digital Media and Learning Initiative in 2006 to explore how digital media are changing the way young people learn, play, socialize, and participate in civic life in the 21st century.

“At a time when social media are transforming how youth engage with each other, with adults, and with the world more largely, the YPP research network is leading the way in understanding the changes in youth participation in politics, and the extraordinary possibilities and challenges that follow,” said director Goldberg from the Humanities Research Institute. “I can't wait to see further results from the network.”

About the MacArthur Foundation

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation supports creative people and effective institutions committed to building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world. In addition to selecting the MacArthur Fellows, the Foundation works to defend human rights, advance global conservation and security, make cities better places, and understand how technology is affecting children and society. More information is available at www.macfound.org/education.

About Mills College

Nestled in the foothills of Oakland, California, Mills College is a nationally renowned, independent liberal arts college offering a dynamic progressive education that fosters leadership, social responsibility, and creativity in over 950 undergraduate women and more than 600 graduate women and men. The College ranks as one of the Best 373 Colleges in the country and one of the greenest colleges in the nation by The Princeton Review. U.S. News & World Report ranked Mills one of the top-tier regional universities in the country and second among colleges and universities in the West in its “Great Schools, Great Prices” category. For more information, visit www.mills.edu.

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