MacArthur Report on Youth and Online Participatory Politics

The MacArthur Research Network just released a new study of youth political activity online (PDF).

Defining participatory politics as “acts that are interactive, peer-based, not guided by deference to elites or formal institutions, and meant to address issues of public concern” that are often but not always “facilitated through online platforms” (p. 3), the study found that “[o]ver 40 percent of young people engage in at least one act of participatory politics. Specifically, 43 percent of white, 41 percent of black, 38 percent of Latino, and 36 percent of Asian American youth participated in at least one act of participatory politics during the prior twelve months” (p. 5).

A few things that stuck out to me from the study:

The study found that “interest-driven online activities” such as those related to gaming, sports, hobbies, and other interests built “digital social capital” in a way that “appear[ed] to lay a foundation for engagement in participatory politics” (p. 6). They expand on this, noting that community norms built around digital forms of interaction may start to bleed into politics:

These practices are peer based, focused on expression, interactive, nonhierarchical, and not guided by deference to elite driven institutions. And though not confined to digital platforms, the practices enabled by new digital media appear to have made participatory cultures more common. It is, however, the pervasive presence of such practices in the lives of young people… that make it a culture shift. Specifically, Jenkins and others suggest that the participatory skills, norms, and networks that develop when social media is used to socialize with friends or to engage with those who share one’s interests can and are being transferred to the political realm.

Thus, young people’s repeated participation in these online spaces or cultures may shape their expectations about how communication and interaction should happen in other spheres of life, including the political domain. And because of the shared commonalities that undergird these relationships, participants may be more likely than those involved in the traditional political infrastructure to produce and circulate information that resonates with others in the network, moving their friends and family to engage in politics, even temporarily. Moreover, because the network is often rooted in a context outside the political realm, most often conversing about and sharing information focused on popular culture or personal interactions, the boundaries of what counts as political information, discourse, and acts of politics are blurred—if not completely ignored. (p. 9)

The fact that most youth not only engage in participatory politics but also get their political information through what the study calls “participatory channels” (p. 33) such as friends’ Facebook feeds, there does seem to be some danger of the “filter bubble” phenomenon that could make political engagement fractured and polarized. It’s clear that librarians could have an important role to play in information gathering and evaluation for youth participatory politics, given the importance of information literacy to political engagement. As the study takes pains to note:

Youth, to a degree never before seen, are inundated with information. At the same time, the vast majority (84 percent) reports that they and their peers would benefit from help judging the credibility of what they see online. (p. xi)

Finally, the study warns that online political participation may obscure the low level of youth participation in other political arenas, and further warns that the hopeful participation numbers presented by this study run the risk of conflating voice with influence:

YPP researchers do not want to undervalue the significance of voice, especially for youth who are in the process of developing their political identities. At the same time, the YPP study recognizes that the promise of a democratic society is predicated on the belief that political actors have more than voice—they must also have influence. (p. xi)

This is an incredibly important distinction, and I wonder if youth advocacy librarianship might have a role to play in bridging the gap between the two, and providing youth with some of the tools and platforms they need to turn voice into influence.

There’s a lot more information (including statistics on youth digital access and participation, with an emphasis on variations across race and class distinctions, that may be useful to any of you out there writing a grant related to this topic), and I encourage everyone to read it in full.

What do you think of the research? What stuck out to you?



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