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Participatory Politics: New Media and Youth Political Action

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A recent study released today by professors at Mills College and the University of Chicago explored the impact of new media on the political and civic behavior of American youth. For anyone interested in the future of this country, and indeed the world, the study should serve as a guide for what needs to happen today if we are to develop an informed and involved electorate of tomorrow.

The findings showed that a significant number of young people are using new media to engage in civic and political activities -- what the researchers call "participatory politics."

In addition, the study results indicate that the widespread enthusiasm of today's youth in online community activities presents an encouraging opportunity. The skills, networks, and interests they are developing, can be leveraged to build pathways to political engagement.

Considering the extent that young people are using new media to communicate their political views or exhort others to action, one has to wonder about the accuracy and veracity of the information they're using to formulate their message. Interestingly, a large majority of the survey respondents are wondering the same thing: 84 percent said they and their peers would benefit from help in assessing the credibility of online information.

Educators bear a special responsibility here, really a dual responsibility, if you will. The first one is hardly new but has taken on new significance in the Internet age, and that namely is to amp up our efforts to engage youth in civic affairs.

The second is to ensure that as students become more engaged they will have the skills and wherewithal necessary to assess the information they're using to participate in the political arena. This effort has become all the more important since youth are most likely to be using new media, with their inherent pitfalls, as both the source of knowledge and as the vehicle for that participation. The concept of media literacy--and the age-old teacher's admonition to "check your facts"--takes on a whole new meaning in the Internet era, where there is so much more opportunity for misinformation to spread. Perhaps the omnipresent bumper sticker of yore, "Question Authority," should be changed to read, "Question What You Think is Authority."

Perhaps more importantly, educators who work with underserved youth have an even greater responsibility than their counterparts who are teaching more affluent kids. In most high schools, opportunities for engaging in civic affairs or even studying it are limited to extracurricular activities. Students must opt into it, meaning they must have both the inclination and the time available to participate. Instead, I would argue that a curriculum devoted to civic engagement -- and one that incorporates a digital media literacy focus -- must become the norm in our nation's high schools. Doing so today will help ensure a more equitable future where a greater diversity of voices will be heard -- and those voices will be informed, knowledgeable, and astute. The good news is that youth of all demographic groups are already utilizing new media to communicate, and many have been motivated by these new technologies to become politically active. We have been presented with a clear window of opportunity to harness that involvement and ensure that a greater number -- as well as a more diverse set -- of young people are informed participants in civic affairs.

In California, we recognize the need to move forward as quickly as possible on this task. At Mills College, located in Oakland, California, we have embarked on a Digital Media Literacy and Civic Engagement project, in partnership with the Oakland Unified School District and the National Writing Project. This initiative is designed to provide all high school students in the district with the tools they need to become committed, informed, and effective civic actors, and to acknowledge and emphasize the central role that web 2.0 tools play and will play in the civic and political arena -- especially for the youth of today and their peers. It is our hope that the skills these young people learn in the classroom will provide them with a greater opportunity and desire to be active and able participants in their community and beyond, and help them find solutions for many of the difficult and seemingly intractable problems we face today.

In this new media era where news spreads like wildfire and political activity sprouts up in minutes and hours, not months or years, we must make equitable civic education and digital media literacy a front-burner issue.

The study, entitled Participatory Politics: New Media and Youth Political Action, was conducted by the Youth & Participatory Politics Survey Project research team and was supported by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network. The team was led by Cathy Cohen of the University of Chicago and Joseph Kahne of Mills College (Oakland, California).