the Internet’s role in making engaged citizens

Below is my own summary of an important new study by Joe Kahne and colleagues. The original research is here. Or read Joe’s Huff Post piece.

Drawing on a unique panel survey of the online practices and the civic and political engagement of youth (ages 16–21), the new study, partially funded by CIRCLE, addresses broad and timely questions:

  • Does interacting online cause young people to drop out of their real-world communities? The study suggests that this is not a concern. On the contrary, young people who become heavily involved in online communities tend to increase their offline volunteering, charity, and work with neighbors.

  • Do young people spend their time in online "echo chambers"? For more than a decade, many authors and observers have worried that people go online to find their own political and ideological views confirmed, causing society to become more polarized. But the new study finds that young people who see any political opinions online tend to see diverse opinions. (A larger concern is the substantial proportion, 34%, who don’t see political opinions at all when they are online.)

  • Can we teach media literacy? It is difficult to use the Internet and other new media effectively and responsibly. The new study suggests that young people can be taught to do so. Studying digital media literacy dramatically increases the odds that students will be exposed to diverse perspectives online and will engage online with civic and political issues.

Joseph E. Kahne is an education professor at Mills College and CIRCLE Advisory Board member.