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Current Issue

Summer 2016

VOX POPULiPHONE

How digital media is giving kids a voice — and an appetite — to become more politically active.

Illustration by Todd DetwilerWith just a Twitter handle and a smart phone, a teenager's denouncement of offshore drilling or support of transgender rights can instantly provoke thousands of people across the world.

That interaction was inconceivable less than a generation ago.

Visiting Professor Helen Haste is fascinated by this concept. Her interest in civic engagement has led her to explore how "new media" — the internet, smart phones, and social media — is transforming the way young people participate in civic activities. We asked Haste to talk more about what that means for civic education.

WHY THE CONNECTION BETWEEN NEW MEDIA AND CIVICS EDUCATION?
I think new media is very interesting because it is a field that challenges a lot of assumptions that we've made in the past, particularly with regard to education; it challenges how we think about citizenship; it challenges even how we think about democracy.

If we're going to redefine civics to include a much wider range of participation than we previously did and look at what kids really are doing when they're engaging in civic activity, absolutely central to that is the fact that they've got access to new media.

The main thing is that civic participation is much more than voting. It always has been, but we hadn't noticed. Now we're noticing it, and it has enormous implications for how we categorize whether or not young people are involved in civic participation, and it has implications for how we educate people to be effective participants in the civic domain.

HOW HAS NEW MEDIA CHANGED THE WAY PEOPLE COMMUNICATE ABOUT CIVIC MATTERS?
What new media has done is to completely break down the problems of distance. It has given incredibly important assistance to the opportunity for young people to feel that their voices are being heard because they are clearly reaching an audience beyond just their friends. And that wasn't there before. There were very few opportunities for young people to feel their voices heard outside the immediate group. Perhaps the only way was taking part in a large demonstration that got press coverage, but now basically every kid can have the same sense of impact on the outside world that their parents would have had if they wrote a letter to the newspaper 30 years ago. And of course in practical terms, a young person really can initiate a demonstration of 10,000 people within less than 24 hours. And if your tweet is picked up, it can actually be incredibly viral, incredibly significant. Most are not of course. But if it is, it could hit the spot, which could be President Obama's Twitter account.

WHAT CAN WE DO TO FURTHER HELP YOUNG PEOPLE?

  • Discuss and practice communication, organization, and conflict- resolution skills.
  • Cultivate digital literacy — give students opportunities to find information, classify it, and vet it.
  • Help students reflect on their civic identities and values: Where do they fit in a particular issue? How are they morally involved?
  • Cultivate a strong knowledge base of history, government, and social movements — both prominent and less successful.

Watch a video interview with Helen Haste on civic participation.

Illustration by Todd Detwiler