Social media driving youth civic engagement

Web-based activism could change as 'digital natives' get older, according to research.
Web-based activism could change as 'digital natives' get older, according to research.

Unlike some people have hoped, the internet hasn’t led to big changes in the socio-economic makeup of Americans engaged in civic activities, a new study from the Pew Internet and American Life Project finds. But there are some signs that social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook are driving civic engagement among younger people.

As in offline politics, people who participate in online civic life–by contacting government officials, making political or charitable donations, or signing petitions, for example–tend to be richer and better educated, the Pew study shows.

According to the study, released Sept. 1, 35 percent of U.S. adults making at least $100,000 participated in two or more online political activities in the previous 12 months, compared with just 8 percent of people making less than $20,000. That’s a gap of 27 percentage points–the same gap seen for offline political activities.

Still, there are signs that social media sites like Twitter and Facebook are driving civic engagement among younger people. On social networks, income and education levels seem to be less correlated with whether someone engages in civic activism.

Of course, that could result from the fact that younger people who are heavily engaged with such social media sites have yet to reach their full earning and education potential, the researchers acknowledge, so they appear poorer and less educated–and thus falsely make it seem as if the sites are diversifying the makeup of people who are active in civic endeavors.

But researchers behind the study expressed hope that social media could one day serve as an equalizer.
Social-networking sites make it easier for people to get together and to express themselves, said Kay Lehman Schlozman, a political science professor at Boston College.

“This could evolve in a way that makes it easier to get involved,” she said of the technology.

Those who use blogs and social-networking sites as an outlet for civic engagement are far more active in traditional realms of political and nonpolitical participation than are other internet users, the report says. They’re also more active than those who don’t use the internet at all.

Some 37 percent of internet users ages 18 to 29 use blogs or social-networking sites as a venue for political or civic involvement, compared with 17 percent of online 30- to 49-year-olds, 12 percent of online 50- to 64-year-olds, and 10 percent of internet users over 65.

“The impact of these new tools on the future of online political involvement depends in large part upon what happens as this younger cohort of ‘digital natives’ gets older. Are we witnessing a generational change, or a life-cycle phenomenon that will change as these younger users age?” the report asks. “Will the civic divide close, or will rapidly evolving technologies continue to leave behind those with lower levels of education and income?”

The survey of 2,251 adults, including 1,655 internet users, was conducted Aug. 12-31, 2008, and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2.4 percentage points.

Some of the percentages on participation might have been higher had the survey been taken after the fall campaigns and the January inauguration of President Barack Obama. However, a December survey taken by Pew, using different questions, suggests that the socio-economic gaps remained then as well.


Pew Internet & American Life Project

“The Internet and Civic Engagement”

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