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Better Not Say

How young people quiet their online expressions of civic engagement over time
illustration of two people talking, with one holding a finger over his mouth

By now, many young people have absorbed the message that their online actions are like a trail of breadcrumbs for college admissions officers and future employers to follow — for better or worse. But in their efforts to safeguard their reputations, are they overcorrecting? Are they constraining their online behaviors in ways that are not entirely positive?

That’s one conclusion suggested by a new analysis of online civic engagement among young people, conducted by a trio of Harvard Graduate School of Education researchers and published this month in the International Journal of Communication

The study’s authors — doctoral student Emily Weinstein and Project Zero researchers Margaret Rundle and Carrie James — had interviewed a group of 70 young people in 2011 and 2012, capturing a richly detailed picture of their online expression patterns. They found that most  72 percent  of the participants, who were between the ages of 15 and 25, engaged in robust civic expression on their social media platforms. Following up two years later with 41 of the original participants, researchers wanted to see how enduring those patterns would be, and what might prompt a change.

In the new study, they found that more than 40 percent of the tracked respondents reported a change in their online civic expression over the two years, with most choosing to limit their expression.

Why did these civic actors go under cover? They cited a variety of reasons:

  • Awareness of the permanence of online expression
  • Reputation protecting and caution, triggered by life events like the college application process or a shift in status from student to professional
  • A growing sense that online dialogue is unproductive
  • A desire to avoid cyberbullying, trolling, and uncivil discourse
  • A desire to more carefully curate or differentiate their online presences, limiting certain kinds of activities to certain online platforms in correspondence with growing awareness of how norms and audiences differ
  • A decline or a change in offline civic activities

When it comes to online activity, decorum is clearly a good idea. But since the town square is increasingly digital, do we risk losing something essential to a healthy democracy if we go quiet online?

“We care about these findings in part because we fundamentally believe that social media platforms afford exciting opportunities for civic voice and participation,” says Weinstein, the study’s lead author. “But if we want young people to take advantage of these opportunities, we need to be cognizant of forces that might impede their willingness to raise their voices in online contexts.”

As researchers at a school of education, says James, the findings “speak to the need for educational supports to help youth navigate backlash or the risk of unwanted consequences, rather than simply silencing their voices online.”

“Educational efforts can speak directly to some of the tensions we document,” Weinstein adds, “by providing young people with opportunities to reflect on perceptions of online discourse, the nature of productive exchanges, the value of civic speech, and ways to manage unintended consequences.” 

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