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Does Facebook boost civic engagement among American youths, too?

Participation in online communities increases civic engagement – but just socializing on Facebook doesn't, according to a new study of young Americans and the Internet.

By Staff writer / February 24, 2011

Anti-government protesters sit next to a 'Facebook' graffiti sign during demonstrations inside Tahrir Square in Cairo on Feb. 7. A new study of American youth finds that engagement in online communities based on shared interests can increase young people's level of volunteering and community issues, but Facebook socializing doesn't.

Dylan Martinez / Reuters / File


In Egypt, youthful revolutionaries spray-painted their thanks to Facebook on urban walls. In Wisconsin, a young demonstrator supporting union workers’ rights reportedly held up an iPad to play a scene from “The Empire Strikes Back” as he chanted against Gov. Scott Walker: “The Rebels brought down walkers; so can we.”

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Digital media are changing the way young people participate socially and politically – and scholars are scrambling to keep up with the implications.

Some recent, first-of-its kind research examines the relationship between the Internet use and civic engagement of young Americans.

Youths involved in online groups based on common interests, even if those interests were not political, were more likely to increase their level of volunteering, charitable giving, and expressing themselves about community issues, compared with similar peers who were not involved in online groups.

Contrary to concerns that the Internet might isolate people in “echo chambers” where their own viewpoints prevail, “when young people spend time in online communities, [they are] more likely to be exposed to diverse perspectives,” says Joseph Kahne, an education professor at Mills College in Oakland, Calif., and lead author of the series of studies.

The research comes at a time when concerns have surfaced again about youths’ political and civic engagement. After a participation spike in the 2008 presidential election, in which 51 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds voted, just 23 percent of that age group voted in 2010, according to The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University.

And 34 percent of high school seniors didn’t reach even “basic” competency on the civics exam of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in 2006.

Fifty-seven percent of the youth surveyed in Kahne’s studies reported at least some online exposure to those holding diverse perspectives, while only 5 percent said they mainly saw views aligned with their own; the rest had little exposure to views in either category, or were uncertain how to answer.


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