Searching for citizenship

Why are kids' online antics seen as the key to reviving democracy?

Wendy Earle

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Topics Politics

‘It is not young people that are disconnected from formal politics, but political institutions that are disconnected from young people.’ (1)

This is one of the main conclusions of a report launched on 8 June about young people, citizenship and the internet. The report is the latest in a recent flurry of studies on both sides of the Atlantic, arguing that the internet is transforming the political landscape for young people. Stephen Coleman, author of the report, suggests that ‘the nature of citizenship is changing and young people are the first to recognise it. Far from being disengaged with democracy, young people are in the process of re-inventing it’ (2).

In the May 2005 UK general election, a mere 37 per cent of young people between 18 and 24 used their ballot. Two reports from the USA in 2004 argued that the internet offers an antidote to young disengagement. W Lance Bennett and Mike Xenos conclude that ‘there is some indication that a distinct new generation of citizens may be entering politics’ through digital means (3). Another, by Kathryn Montgomery et al, points to ‘the largest generation in [US] history’ being ‘saturated by networks of information, digital devices and the promise of perpetual connectivity’ (4).

According to Montgomery, young people are ‘more than just consumers of digital content; they are also active participants and creators of this new media culture, developing content themselves, designing personal websites, and launching their own online enterprises’. After studying the burgeoning number of youth civic and political websites, she suggests that ‘Youth engagement in politics and community affairs has quietly been taking on new life and a dynamic new look, thanks to the internet’ (5).

In the final report of the UK Children Go Online project, published in April 2005, Sonia Livingstone Magdalena Bober found that 75 per cent of children in the UK have access to the internet from home and 92 per cent have access from school. The majority of these use the internet between once a day (41 per cent) and once a week (43 per cent). Only 13 per cent are non-users (6).

Rather than doing a quantitative survey, Coleman interviewed a number of young people (13- to 18-year-olds), both face-to-face and online. While some worry about the danger the online world presents to young people, he instead emphasises the opportunity. He astutely points out, for example, that young people ‘are warned not to talk to strangers; and yet what is citizenship if not acknowledgement that strangers matter?’ (7), and argues that ‘Young people should be trusted more to decide for themselves, when and how to use the media’ (8).

But Coleman is in danger of romanticising young people’s use of new media. For example, he suggests that today’s young are more interested in ‘new forms of participation – demonstrations, signing petitions and boycotting products’ (9) than young people in the past – which makes me wonder where he has been for the past 30 years. Then there is his suggestion that politics and democratic processes should be reshaped around youth and the internet. The argument is that, while young people are abandoning the traditional forms of political engagement, they are developing new, more creative forms of participation through chat rooms, message boarding, blogging, viral emailing and their own websites.

Coleman’s interviewees feel detached from traditional political institutions, claiming that these do not listen to them or address their interests and concerns. The government apparently lacks ‘an authentic commitment to listen and learn’, and most official internet activity is to provide information, not to engage with youth.

But it’s not that young people really are disengaged, says Coleman. It’s just that they are working outside the framework of formal politics, so their activity remains unrecognised by government and the media. He argues that politicians should adapt to their ways of doing business. While people previously saw citizenship as being based on civic duties such as voting, young people now are more ‘reflexive about their identities as citizens and more critical and consumerist in making choices about how to use their time’ (10).

While I wouldn’t defend today’s political elite, it seems untenable that its failure to adapt to the age of ‘digital interactivity’ is at the root of its problems.

In addition, we should challenge Coleman’s claims that young people are actively engaging through the internet. Livingstone and Bober point out that the greatest use of the internet is for homework and for other information online, and that most are online for less than an hour at a time. While young people are more likely to do something political online than through traditional channels, for most this means little more than signing a petition or voting in an online opinion poll.

For adults who want to stand on the sidelines while young people do all the creative thinking, Coleman offers a bewitching possibility of a transformed citizenship, reshaped by young people through the digital media, where ‘they weave innovative networks of civic connection which both refresh and reshape the civic and political landscape’ (11). But no amount of digital interactivity with 13- to 23-year-olds is likely to change the fact that the current establishment is devoid of a vision for the future that can appeal to either young or old. This is something we all need to deal with.

(1) Remixing Citizenship: Democracy and Young People’s Use of the Internet, Stephen Coleman with Chris Howe, Carnegie Young People Initiative, June 2005, p.ii

(2) Remixing Citizenship: Democracy and Young People’s Use of the Internet, Stephen Coleman with Chris Howe, Carnegie Young People Initiative, June 2005, p.i

(3) Young Voters and the Web of Politics: Pathways to Participation in the Youth Engagement and Electoral Campaign Web Spheres, W Lance Bennett and Mike Xenos, CIRCLE, August 2004

(4) Youth as E-Citizens: Engaging the Digital Generation, Kathryn Montgomery, Barbara Gottlieb-Robles, Gary O Larson, March 2004, p1 (pdf format)

(5) Youth as E-Citizens: Engaging the Digital Generation, Kathryn Montgomery, Barbara Gottlieb-Robles, Gary O Larson, March 2004, p1 (pdf format)

(6) UK Children Go Online: Final Report of Key Project Findings, S Livingstone, and M Bober, April 2005

(7) Remixing Citizenship: Democracy and Young People’s Use of the Internet, Stephen Coleman with Chris Howe, Carnegie Young People Initiative, June 2005, p7

(8) Remixing Citizenship: Democracy and Young People’s Use of the Internet, Stephen Coleman with Chris Howe, Carnegie Young People Initiative, June 2005, p10

(9) Remixing Citizenship: Democracy and Young People’s Use of the Internet, Stephen Coleman with Chris Howe, Carnegie Young People Initiative, June 2005, p.i

(10) Remixing Citizenship: Democracy and Young People’s Use of the Internet, Stephen Coleman with Chris Howe, Carnegie Young People Initiative, June 2005, p5

(11) Remixing Citizenship: Democracy and Young People’s Use of the Internet, Stephen Coleman with Chris Howe, Carnegie Young People Initiative, June 2005, p14

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Topics Politics

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