Expert Commentary

Digital media education and online civic and political participation

2010 paper from the MacArthur Foundation's Youth and Participatory Politics research project on youth media literacy and civic participation.


During the 2008 presidential election season, young people ages 18 to 34 in the United States were avid consumers of online civic and political information: 37% received news relating to the election via social networking sites, and 41% found candidate- and election-related materials on the Web. However, such online engagement has not translated necessarily into increased participation in offline activities such as voting or connecting with local civic organizations.

A 2010 paper from the MacArthur Foundation’s Youth and Participatory Politics research project, “Digital Media Literacy Education and Online Civic and Political Participation,” outlines whether school-based education in digital media literacy can increase levels of political participation for lower-income and minority youth, cultivate greater levels of tolerance for contradictory viewpoints, and boost political understandings for all students. The paper’s results are based on survey data collected in 2006, 2007 and 2008  from 937 California high school students.

The working paper’s findings include:

  • Digital media literacy education opportunities in schools are relatively common.  Between 40% and 57% of high school and between 68% and 81% of college students reported opportunities for consuming online civic and political information. In contrast, only 15% of high school and 22% of college students reported opportunities for creating, not consuming, online content.
  • The study suggests that “when students have opportunities to learn how to engage in online political activities, they become more likely to do so.”
  • The researchers assert that exposure to diverse viewpoints is a critical component in fostering a healthy democratic society and report that digital media literacy education succeeds in promoting this.
  • While in-school digital media literacy education appears to be successful, it does not address the unequal levels of participation by lower-income and racial minorities. “Since only those enrolled in school receive these media literacy opportunities, providing school-based digital media literacy education appears likely to exacerbate the gap in civic and political participation between those who stay in high school and attend college and those who do not.”

The authors conclude that “digital media literacy education is associated with gains in the quantity of politically driven online activities and with higher levels of online exposure to diverse perspectives” and urge further reform work to “expand the quality and quantity of these opportunities without contributing to their inequitable distribution” by promoting digital media literacy education for youth beyond the formal school context.

Tags: youth

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