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Teaching Kids About Online Political Engagement Works. Should We Do It More?

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Arguably, the social media revolution has transformed American politics more than any other aspect of our culture—with the possible exception of cute-kitten memes.

Political fortunes are made and lost on a well-placed or ill-crafted Tweet. Our current president, Donald Trump, frequently pushes out policy shifts on social media. And boycotts these days are almost entirely fueled on Twitter.

It's also no surprise that today's young "digital natives" spend lots of their time on social media platforms. Yet there's little out there analyzing just how these two trends work together: How does digital social interaction shape students civically? What kinds of assistance do they get navigating these ecosystems?

New evidence suggests that training does matter: Those students who reported having lessons in media literacy and participatory politics were more likely to say they'd engaged in political activity online, concludes a new study, published online earlier this week by the journal Learning, Media, and Technology. 

Here's the catch: The study doesn't address how educators can do this sort of teaching well—nor the more provocative question of whether or not it's desirable from a civics pedagogy perspective. Like so much of civics education these days, it's a question complicated by the increasing polarization of Americans, both in public life and in educational settings.


Our Citizen Z project looks at the state of civics education and where it needs to go. Check it out.


The new research, from University of California, Riverside, researchers Joseph Kahne and Benjamin Bowyer, looks at two particular forms of online activity. One is "online participatory politics," in which people interact on digital media to express their voice or influence on issues of public concern.

The other, "targeted political pressure," refers specifically to online protest activity, including online petitions, as well as individual grievances. A good recent example among youth occurred following the bloodshed in Parkland, Fla., where the students took to social media to call on private corporations, like car-rental companies and banks, to end discount programs for National Rifle Association members, using the hashtag #boycottNRA. (A fair few did drop their affiliations with the NRA.)

The researchers' analysis is based on data from the Youth and Participatory Politics survey, a nationally representative, longitudinal survey of young people conducted in 2013 and 2015. Originally a sample of 15- to 27-year-olds, the researchers restricted it to those who were enrolled in middle and high school.

Then they developed scales based on the students' answers to several sets of questions, including how often they circulated, created, or commented on political content online; whether they'd tried to influence institutions by signing petitions or communicating electronically with an institution; and how often they had classes in which they learned how to create and share social media and how to share their perspective on social and political issues online.

They also controlled for factors like parental education and activism, ethnicity, and political interest. 

Across several different models, the researchers found that students who reported being exposed to digital engagement learning opportunities at school in either 2013 or 2015 displayed more online participatory political activity in 2015. That was the case even when the researchers controlled for students who reported higher levels of activity in 2013. Among all the models, the effect was stronger for the targeted political participation rather than general online political engagement. Students who had lessons on media literacy and political engagement were between three and seven times more likely to participate in a pressure campaign compared to students without those learning opportunities. 

Interpreting the findings is a little tricky, because of the nature of survey results in general and a lack of clarity on what the formal instruction entails.

"What I'm confident is that it promotes more activity. I would not bet my house on exactly how much more it promotes it," Kahne said. "We don't know exactly how productive or, frankly, exactly what teachers are doing; I think some probably do it really well, and some probably don't."

Teaching Engagement, Not Activism?

That's also the issue that could make some in the civics education community nervous.

For one, they're not all in agreement about whether engagement or knowledge-building should be the core focus of civics. Several conservative commentators have raised concerns about on approaches like action civics that hinge on having students research and use civic channels to solve a problem in their communities. Those approaches, they say, neglect core civics knowledge—like the slow, messy, often unsatisfying process of writing legislation—in favor of the fast pace and pitched emotion of activism.

More troubling are longstanding worries that educators favor left-leaning ideas and could bring them into class. Past research suggests that, in contrast to higher education, it's rare for K-12 teachers to take political sides in class. (In fact, as Education Week reported in a 2017 survey, while 41 percent of teachers said they identified as Democrats, a larger proportion in all identified as either Republican or independent.)

These are legitimate concerns worth talking about, Kahne said. But ultimately it's a discussion teachers should have, because this much is clear: Twitter as a dimension of politics is not going to stop. 

"I think we have to have that conversation because I think there are groups right now in the post-Parkland era who are saying, 'We don't want kids to be politically active. This did not play well for us,' " he said.

The study also provides evidence that fears about political indoctrination notwithstanding, few teachers actually prioritize online political engagement in their lessons. Both in 2013 and in 2015, more than 60 percent of students in the researchers' sample said they never had an opportunity at school to effectively share their perspective online.

Image: Getty

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