Arguably, the upheaval, activism and revolutions in of the last two months may serve to counter what has been a longstanding stereotype: youth are largely apolitical. Moreover, those that do participate in politics and activism online do so in shallow ways, the so-called “slacktivism.” But recent findings from a longitudinal study of high school-age students challenges these notions, suggesting that youth who pursue their interests online are more likely to be engaged in civic issues.

The study surveyed over 2,500 youth from school districts within California, more than 400 of whom were followed for over three years. The study examined whether particular kinds of online activities were associated with changes to their level of civic or political activity. The study, supported by 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.

The study looked at, for example, how often students used social networking sites to share their perspectives on social and political issues; how often they used the Internet to get information about political or social issues; and how often they used email to communicate with others who are working on a political or social issue.

Internet Encourages Engagement With Society

The study found that spending time in online communities appears to promote engagement with broader society. While some critics (or skeptics, perhaps) of the Internet contend that youth who spend a lot of time online 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.”

Importance of Digital Literacy Education

It also found that youth are not simply participating in online political discussions that become simply echo chambers that fail to expose them to diverse perspectives. Only 5% of youth reported that they were exposed only to political views they agreed with online. More damning, perhaps – 34% said they didn’t encounter any political perspectives online at all.

The study found, however, that improved media literacy dramatically increased students’ exposure to diverse perspectives and increased the likelihood of youth online engagement. As the authors note, “this finding has serious implications for school and after-school programs as well as for parents.”

The findings from the study echo recent research from the Pew Internet and American Life Project that found that among adults as well, Internet users were more civically-engaged. The paper on youth online behaviors (PDF) were announced by the newly formed Youth and Participatory Politics (YPP) research network, which plans to use this information to build further research efforts.

Photo credits: ASU via Flickr