Raising Cyber-Citizens

Some intriguing research on civic education is being conducted by Professor Joseph Kahne, the John and Martha Davidson Professor of Education at Mills College in California. Kahne is investigating the effect of digital media on young people’s political knowledge and engagement, and his preliminary findings (let’s face it, at this stage of our ‘cyber-world,’ everything we know is preliminary) are pretty fascinating.

Kahne says that half of all 18-20-year-olds say their voting decisions are influenced by what they learn online.

Seventy-five percent of America’s youth are active on Facebook; and ninety-five percent of teenagers between the ages of 14 and 17 use the Internet. Almost a quarter of all smartphones are used by teens and young adults between 13 and 24.

Youth under twenty-five are more often recruited for civic or political activities online than through other methods.

Before you wring your hands and–in the manner of all passing generations–denounce this state of affairs as the harbinger of a disconnected, disinterested polity, consider some of Kahne’s other findings: even controlling for prior levels of engagement, when young people became highly involved in online, interest-driven communities (Harry Potter fans, sports fans, followers of particular music genres, etc.), they became more likely to volunteer in their communities, raise money for a charitable cause, or work together with others to solve a community problem. These groups are also less likely to serve as “echo chambers” and more likely to introduce young people to social and political perspectives other than their own than their off-line lives in communities of like-minded residents. Even when the  online communities discuss sports or hobbies, political matters emerge and are discussed–and Hobbit aficionados are not likely to be politically homogeneous.

Kahne has even collaborated with Pew’s Internet and American Life Project to explore the ways in which video games can be used to provide youth with civic learning experiences, and he cites Games for Change, an organization working to exploit that possibility.

Cyberspace certainly presents parents and educators with new challenges–some of them worthy of our concern. But like all change, it also opens up new opportunities. The Internet is a tool, and like all tools, morally and educationally neutral. It’s how we use it that makes the difference.