Recent research suggests that digital citizenship (regular and effective use of the Internet) is associated with civic engagement and participation in democracy. Further, innovative use of social media has become a key factor in engaging youth (as well as adults) in working and supporting the causes they believe in. We've recently seen evidence of this in news accounts about its use in super storm Sandy and political campaigns. The Internet and its social media tools have already, or soon will change the traditional civic and social organizations in our society.
Social media have been shown to powerfully grab our attention. They can dramatically expose us to problems and issues, encourage us to care about them, to want to fix the problem and better our world. For many it can be a life-changing experience. Social media support our ability to organize, to shape our message and to share it widely. But do they promote real civic engagement? Or do they provide just an easy, relatively meaningless, form of social activism?
What is at work here is more than just the Internet and its social media tools. It is how these tools are being used that can promote civic engagement. They can provide a mechanism for youth to form and join in a "participatory culture", defined by Henry Jenkins as one with a strong sense of community, low barriers to participation, informal mentorship, and opportunities for creative work. These are cultures where youth have voice and power, where they act and can influence, where they can make a difference, cause change, have autonomy.
But informing others requires that one first inform one's self. This is fostered through youth learning by doing and sharing, and by within-community mentoring and networking. The mentoring provides scaffolds for further learning, building skills and knowledge that enable us to grow and take action effectively on the issues we care about.
Another attribute of a participatory culture is youth-developed materials or products: telling the story, retelling, and remixing. These can be tweets or blogs and videos, building on a shared experience to give voice to their ideas and take action.
Think of the Eight Essential Elements for positive youth development. It is easy to see that most are present in a participatory culture. The caring adult may or may not be there, but it does include friends and mentors of various ages. And when the culture is organized around a social issue that youth care about, it provides an opportunity for generosity, to value and practice service to others.
Adding Internet and social media to our youth development programs has great potential for enhancing youth voice and youth leadership in today's society, providing an opportunity for them to be more actively engaged in their community and their world. Online participatory cultures researchers are finding examples of the attributes and strategies these organizations use to enhance youth voice and engagement. And, as these organizations are demonstrating through their community chapters and clubs that meet face-to-face, they do not have to replace more traditional youth programs. But we can enhance these traditional programs by adding the social media tools and participatory culture attributes.
Have social media changed how the youth you know engage in civic activities? Have they changed how youth programs engage youth in civic activities?
-- Trudy Dunham, research fellow
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