In this era of concerns about “fake news,” polarization and internet extremism, it can be hard to see the advantages of teens involvement in activism or advocacy. However, research suggests that civic and political engagement (activities ranging from volunteering, activism and electoral work) are associated with positive outcomes for youth. When youth have opportunities to work with peers to address community problems, they can develop a sense of purpose, accomplishment, and empowerment. These features of civic identity can serve as a foundation for non-civic outcomes such as school engagement and reduced risk-taking behaviors. This may be particularly important for marginalized youth who can feel helpless in the face of discrimination or lack of access to resources.
As public life moves online, researchers are examining the influence of digital media on the quantity and quality of youth civic engagement, captured under the umbrella term of participatory politics. As with many outcomes, when examining the impact of internet use on participatory politics, it becomes clear that whether youth are online is far less important than what they do online. Practices such as information seeking, social network site use, and participation in online communities organized around common interests have been found to support civic engagement. Digital media also play an important role in helping politically active youth mobilize, draw audience to their voices and perspectives, and to tell their stories in an authentic way.
At the same time youth are leveraging digital tools and networks for political expression and empowerment, they are also exposed to risk. Within the realm of civic engagement, exposure to misinformation and propaganda, emotionally charged and unproductive discourse and hate speech are all potential pitfalls. Educators are responding with media literacy and digital citizenship initiatives, which can help youth tap the potential of the internet while managing risk and working to create more productive models of participatory politics going forward.
How can we help teens understand the difference between real and fake news?
While there is no single magic bullet, parents and educators can work together to encourage teens to be critical consumers of media. Media literacy education is not new, but often gets overlooked in schools. Schools can adopt evidence-based media literacy curricula and invest in professional development for teachers. Parents can draw on publically available resources like the Washington Post’s Fact Checker for checking out rumors and untruths related to politics and Common Sense Media’s news and media literacy resources. NPR also has a great resource for discussion: www.npr.org/sections/alltechconsidered/2016/12/05/503581220/fake-or-real-how-to-self-check-the-news-and-get-the-facts. Parents can also talk with their older children about how social media platforms (like Facebook, YouTube and Snapchat) do not, but could, provide greater transparency in how information becomes part of a teen’s feed. This aspect of media literacy (understanding how news is circulated) is particularly important in the digital age.
Doesn’t participating in political activity online expose teens to risks?
It may, but part of becoming an adult is learning how to navigate and manage risk. Just as teens are learning to manage the risks of driving, unsupervised time with friends, and dating, they are also learning how to make good decisions about whether and how to share their opinions online, how to judge others’ intentions in online interactions, and how to engage in dialogue without turning it into a battle of insults. Early research suggests that these are real challenges, but also skills that can be learned. Furthermore, for teens who are marginalized or frustrated, political activity can provide a constructive outlet for their critiques of society and can even provide a mechanism for making things better. Although this may come with risks, these risks can be managed, and it may be a good thing for teens to learn how to navigate risky situations during a time when they have supportive adults around to help them. Connect Safely is a website that provides good tips on how to engage young people in conversations about online risks.
Politics is so divided and hostile these days, especially online. Why should teens get involved?
Concerns about polarization are common, not just for teens. Many people prefer to avoid talking about politics altogether. But if a large number of citizens withdraw from political life, this makes the problem of polarization worse because we won’t have any voices between the vocal extremes, and our democracy will suffer as a result. We need to support young people by listening to them and modeling ways to engage in conversations about sensitive issues. We also need to talk with young people about the values that lie behind what we believe so that they will also be able to participate in spaces where decisions about their world are made. Young people are experimenting with new forms of engagement, both on and offline, and it’s important for our future that we support their efforts. Teenagers have the advantage of being relatively new to politics. Although this makes entry into politics challenging, it also allows for creative thinking and new models of engagement. If our political discourse is going to improve in the future, teens will need to be part of that solution.
- In addition to exposing adolescents to risk, technology use also provides opportunities for adolescent development.
- Online practices such as information seeking, social network site use, and participation in online communities promote civic engagement, which in turn can support positive youth development.
- Bolstering digital media competences can help adolescents manage the risks of online participatory politics while benefiting from the opportunity to exercise their voice and create positive social ties.
Guidelines for Parents
- Create an open dialogue with teens about their online activities. Adolescence is a time of expanding cognitive capacity and increased desire for autonomy and privacy. Teens are learning to manage risk on their own in a whole range of activities from relationships to driving to online risks. Too much parental control or invasions of privacy lead to increased lying and negative psychosocial outcomes. However, when parents are present, interested, and involved, teens can learn through dialogue to understand and develop strategies to make good decisions. Furthermore, when parents are present and involved but not intrusive, teens are more likely to come to them for advice. Keep in mind that parents do not need to be experts on digital, mobile, and social media. Respectfully expressing curiosity about a teen’s online experiences can be a great way to open a conversation.
- Model critical media literacy. Teens are not the only group who struggle with knowing whether the facts they encounter online are accurate or biased. Parents can educate themselves and model a variety of practices, such as asking questions about the sources of evidence behind news, questioning why two news sources come to very different conclusions, and exploring how social media platforms seem to present different information to different people based on algorithms that reflect information back to people that is aligned with what they already think. Resources like Common Sense Media and the Washington Post’s Fact Checker are useful for checking out rumors and untruths related to politics.
- Support educational initiatives in your schools and informal learning environments. Most school districts now recommend the incorporation of digital media literacy into the curriculum. Check with your child’s school to learn more about their initiatives taking place both inside and outside the classroom. Encourage your child to talk with you about what they have learned in school about media and technologies, and find ways to build on that knowledge at home. Also, encourage the school to engage in efforts to press for greater accountability on the part of social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube, so that we can be sure that the decisions they make are in the best interests of our young people.
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The analysis, conclusions, and recommendations contained in each paper are solely a product of the individual workgroup and are not the policy or opinions of, nor do they represent an endorsement by, Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development.