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Click activism: Are social media changing civic engagement?

By Trudy Dunham

Have social media changed how the youth you know engage in civic activities? Are charities and civic organizations too out-of-touch with today's youth to engage them in their communities?

Recent research suggests that digital citizenship (regular and effective use of the Internet) is associated with civic engagement and participation in democracy. Further, innovative use of social media has become a key factor in engaging youth (as well as adults) in working and supporting the causes they believe in. We've recently seen evidence of this in news accounts about its use in super storm Sandy and political campaigns. The Internet and its social media tools have already, or soon will change the traditional civic and social organizations in our society.

Social media have been shown to powerfully grab our attention. They can dramatically expose us to problems and issues, encourage us to care about them, to want to fix the problem and better our world. For many it can be a life-changing experience. Social media support our ability to organize, to shape our message and to share it widely. But do they promote real civic engagement? Or do they provide just an easy, relatively meaningless, form of social activism?

What is at work here is more than just the Internet and its social media tools. It is how these tools are being used that can promote civic engagement. They can provide a mechanism for youth to form and join in a "participatory culture", defined by Henry Jenkins as one with a strong sense of community, low barriers to participation, informal mentorship, and opportunities for creative work. These are cultures where youth have voice and power, where they act and can influence, where they can make a difference, cause change, have autonomy.

But informing others requires that one first inform one's self. This is fostered through youth learning by doing and sharing, and by within-community mentoring and networking. The mentoring provides scaffolds for further learning, building skills and knowledge that enable us to grow and take action effectively on the issues we care about.

Another attribute of a participatory culture is youth-developed materials or products: telling the story, retelling, and remixing. These can be tweets or blogs and videos, building on a shared experience to give voice to their ideas and take action.

Think of the Eight Essential Elements for positive youth development. It is easy to see that most are present in a participatory culture. The caring adult may or may not be there, but it does include friends and mentors of various ages. And when the culture is organized around a social issue that youth care about, it provides an opportunity for generosity, to value and practice service to others.

Adding Internet and social media to our youth development programs has great potential for enhancing youth voice and youth leadership in today's society, providing an opportunity for them to be more actively engaged in their community and their world. Online participatory cultures researchers are finding examples of the attributes and strategies these organizations use to enhance youth voice and engagement. And, as these organizations are demonstrating through their community chapters and clubs that meet face-to-face, they do not have to replace more traditional youth programs. But we can enhance these traditional programs by adding the social media tools and participatory culture attributes.

Have social media changed how the youth you know engage in civic activities? Have they changed how youth programs engage youth in civic activities?

-- Trudy Dunham, former research fellow

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  1. Wow what a timely reminder for all of us youthworkers! I'm teaching a class on youth engagement right now based on the Rings of Engagement (participation, passion, voice, and collective action) all of which can be incredibly enhanced by social media. I'm going to make sure we address this at our next class on collective action, i.e., youth as social change agents through youth-adult partnerships. Thanks so much Trudy!

  2. Beki - Glad this resonated with you and your work. The tools we have available can really change how we live and contribute, both locally and globally. Let me know what your class thinks as well.

  3. Gayle Kimball, Ph.D.January 31, 2013 at 8:45 AM

    Greetings. In response to the important article on the lack of positive studies of youth, I invite you to critique a draft of a book about global youth based on their own voices. I’d be happy to email chapters. Thanks, Gayle Kimball
    I also have 12 questions if you know youth who would like to be heard in the book. The questions on on the FB page Global Youth Speakout.
    Awesome: How Global Youth Will Transform Our Future
    Gayle Kimball, Ph.D.
    Over 3,800 young people from 72 countries SpeakOut! Future leaders reveal trends in youth culture and identify crucial global issues to reveal future directions.
    Table of Contents
    Part 1 Getting to Know the New Generation
    Chapter 1 Global Youth Power and Issues
               Youth Power; Get to Know Eva, Abel, Sahar and Yuan; International Youth Issues: Urban vs. Rural; The Gap Between Rich and Poor
    Chapter 2: The Millennial Generation and their Elders
                Teenaging of Culture vs. War on Kids, Youth Generation Characteristics, What Youths Think About Adults
    Chapter 3 Consumerism vs. Caring for Others
    Media and Common Language, Teen Style, Multinational Corporate Consumerism
    Part 2 Youth Activism
    Chapter 4: Youth Activism for Equality
     Activist Youths vs. Apathy, History of Youth Movements, The 2011 Arab Spring, European Summer, US Fall and Russian Winter Youth Demonstrations 2012 Protests, The Occupy Movements, Change Making Tools: Electronic Networking
    Chapter 5 How to Create a Revolution in 18 Days
    The Groundwork, After Mubarak Stepped Down, My Interviews with Demonstrators in Tahrir Square, Women’s Role in the Revolution
    Chapter 6  Gender Equality
    Current Status of Gender Equality, Life For a Traditional Village Teen, Women in Government, Global Feminist Activism, Fourth Wave Feminism
    Part 3 Youth Values and Beliefs
    Chapter 7 Traditional vs. Modern Values
                Life Purpose, Values, Rural vs. Urban, Respect for Elders, Consumerism
    Chapter 8  Beliefs about Religion and Spirituality
                 Suffering, Religious Purpose, Beliefs About God, Participation in Organized Religion, Spirituality
    The Future and Conclusion
    Appendix 1 The Questions and Answers and Respondents’ Nationalities
    Appendix 2 Resources: Films, Internet Resources, Global Surveys, Bibliography