Research Network on Youth and Participatory Politics

The MacArthur Research Network on Youth and Participatory Politics is exploring the nature and extent of young people's use of digital communications tools, social media and the Internet, and how those tools influences their engagement with participatory politics.

About This Network

The nature of political and civic life in America is changing, in part due to digital communications tools, social media and the Internet. Today, citizens are more often communicating with and influencing each other outside of traditional political and social structures.

Think of blogs, Twitter, YouTube videos, podcasts and a host of other activities through which people share their opinions while becoming engaged in their communities and seeking to effect change.

Digital media are playing a crucial role in the trend by opening up new avenues for communication as well as new opportunities for people to connect.

The MacArthur Research Network on Youth and Participatory Politics is exploring the nature and extent of young people's involvement in this phenomenon and how it influences their engagement with participatory politics.

Young people merit special attention because their civic and political commitment is the lowest of all demographic groups, judged by traditional standards. Clearly, that raises concern for a democratic government that depends on citizen engagement.

At the same time, young people seem to be seeking greater influence and voice in social issues through digital media. This raises the prospect that new media can become a bridge to young people's involvement with politics and other democratic institutions.

The YPP network's work will help elucidate a new paradigm of what it means to be civically engaged and what it means to be a citizen in the 21st century for a new generation of Americans.

Four Essential Questions

The following four essential questions guide the network's research agenda.

  • How is engagement with digital media through the Internet, smart phones, and iPads, for example, reshaping the manner in which young people participate in public life?
  • What is the relationship between young people's online activities and their political participation?
  • How frequently do young people engage in civic or political activities through the use of digital media? Is such participation equitably distributed among different groups of youth?
  • How can policy makers, educators and software designer promote frequent, equitable and meaningful political engagement among youth through the use of digital media?

Six Major Research Projects

The following six major research projects have been launched an are expected to yield valuable insights.

Digital Activism, Global Dimensions 
This project studies the ways that youth around the world are using digital media to contribute social change. A goal is to define different models of digital activism and what tools and techniques activists employ.

E-Publics
This project will examine how the nature of public life is changing in the U.S. with the growing use of digital media. "What we have come to see as a decline in civic engagement is better understood as the passing away of one model of (the) public sphere conjoined with the emergence of a new model," researchers observe.

Good Participation
Researchers will conduct in-depth interviews of young people who are members or leaders of groups that focus on social or political issues. The purpose is to understand how these individuals think about citizenship and its meaning in their lives. Also, the goal is to understand how these young people became involved with the groups, what kinds of civic and political activities they pursue, and how they use new media.

Media Activism and Participatory Politics
This project will develop in-depth case studies of organizations and networks that encourage young people to participate in politics or civic life. The goal is to identify best practices that may help young people become informed and involved citizens.

The Youth & Participatory Politics Survey Project
This initiative is collecting survey data from more than 2,500 young people after the 2010 and 2012 elections. The purpose is to understand the extent to which youth are involved with digital media, their attitudes toward politics and civic life, and their engagement in participatory politics, both online and off.

Youth Media and Its Digital Afterlife
How do various types of media generated by young people – whether journalism, arts or smart phone apps -- change after their public release? And what do these changes tell us about the way youth express themselves in the public sphere and the role of "youth voice" in participatory politics? These questions lie at the heart of this research initiative.

Significant Research

Conducted to date, below is a list of significant research associated with this research network.

Publication: Digital Media Literacy Education and Online Civic and Political Participation, by Joseph Kahne, Jessica Timpany Feezell, and Nam-Jin Lee, Nov. 8, 2010, published in the International Journal of Communication 6 (2012), 1-24.

This is one of the first studies to document the scope of digital media literacy education in high schools and assess the impact of this instruction on students' civic and political participation. Data came from two surveys of almost 1,000 high school students in California. Researchers found that digital media education is common but by no means universal. Exposure to this type of education boosted young people's participation in online civic and political activities and enhanced their exposure to diverse viewpoints.

Publication: Youth Online Activity and Exposure to Diverse Perspectives, by Joseph Kahne, Ellen Middaugh, Nam-Jin Lee and Jessica T. Feezell, published in New Media & Society (2011), 1-21.

This paper examined the extent to which young people encounter diverse viewpoints when engaged in online political activities, nonpolitical interest-driven activities, and friendship driven activities. Data comes from 2006 and 2009 surveys of students at 21 California schools. Researchers found that most young people, 57 percent, reported some exposure to other people with diverse perspectives online. Exposure was most likely when young people engaged in political activities or nonpolitical interest-driven activities. Notably, a relatively large group of young people, 34 percent, reported no exposure online to people with similar or diverse perspectives.

Working paper: The Civic and Political Significance of Online Participatory Cultures among Youth Transitioning to Adulthood, by Joseph Kahne, Nam-Jin Lee and Jessica Timpany Feezell, February 5, 2011.

This paper is the first to examine, quantitatively, how youth's participation in online communities organized around shared interests affects civic and political participation. It analyzed data from 435 high school students in California and a national sample of 586 young people ages 18 to 35. The major finding was that young people who participate online in non-political, interest-driven activities are more likely to participate subsequently in civic life and, to a lesser extent, political life.

Working paper: Youth Internet Use and Recruitment into Civic and Political Participation, by Ellen Middaugh and Joseph Kahne, October 10, 2011.

This paper explores the degree to which young people are invited to participate in political activities over the Internet and the impact of those overtures on their civic and political behavior. Data came from a survey of 436 California high school students. Researchers found that most attempts to recruit students for political purposes occurred over the Internet. Internet-based overtures were effective for some, but all not activities. Notably, Internet invitations to vote, join political organizations, and participate in protests didn't seem to have much impact on young people's behaviors.

Working Paper: Digital Opportunities for Civic Education, by Joseph Kahne, Jacqueline Ullman, and Ellen Middaugh. October 20, 2011. Published by the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research.

This paper examines opportunities for educators to foster youth involvement in civic and political activities by tapping the power of social networks, video games, and online interest-driven communities. It also highlights ways that educators can prepare youth to use digital media to participate civically and politically.

For more information about the network's activities, visit the Youth and Participatory Politics website.