Research Networks

Research Network on Youth and Participatory Politics

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

Supported by MacArthur from 2009 to 2018


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 play 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 explored 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 aimed to 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 guided 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 were launched and expected to yield valuable insights.

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

This project examined 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 observed.

Good Participation
Researchers conducted in-depth interviews of young people who were members or leaders of groups that focus on social or political issues. The purpose was to understand how these individuals think about citizenship and its meaning in their lives. Also, the goal was 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 developed in-depth case studies of organizations and networks that encourage young people to participate in politics or civic life. The goal was to identify best practices that may help young people become informed and involved citizens.

The Youth & Participatory Politics Survey Project
This initiative collected survey data from more than 2,500 young people after the 2010 and 2012 elections. The purpose was 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 were at the heart of this research initiative.

Significant Research


The Civic and Political Significance of Online Participatory Cultures among Youth Transitioning to Adulthood
January 2013
Researchers: Joseph Kahne, Nam-Jin Lee and Jessica Timpany Feezell

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.


Digital Media Literacy Education and Online Civic and Political Participation
January 2012
Researchers: Joseph Kahne, Jessica Timpany Feezell, and Nam-Jin Lee.

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.

Youth Online Activity and Exposure to Diverse Perspectives
January 2012
Researchers: Joseph Kahne, Ellen Middaugh, Nam-Jin Lee and Jessica T. Feezell

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.


Youth Internet Use and Recruitment into Civic and Political Participation
October 2011
Researchers: Ellen Middaugh and Joseph Kahne

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.

Digital Opportunities for Civic Education
October 2011
Researchers: Joseph Kahne, Jacqueline Ullman, and Ellen Middaugh

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.

Network Chair

Joseph Kahne
John and Martha Davidson Professor of Education at Mills College

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