Study shows Net supports civic engagement

By Anne Collier

Certainly “clicktivism” isn’t the all of social activism – it’s a complement to it – but it’s clear the Internet is an increasingly important support to civic engagement in this country, a just-released Pew/Internet survey shows. According to Pew’s report, 75% of US adults are active in some kind of voluntary group, and 80% of those who use the Net are (compared with 56% of non-Internet users). Drilling down a bit more, social-media users are even more civically engaged (82% of social site users and 85% of Twitter users participate in volunteer work). “The internet is now deeply embedded in group and organizational life in America,” the Pew researchers say. And beyond our borders, “social media have become coordinating tools for nearly all of the world’s political movements,” wrote New York University professor and consultant Clay Shirky in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs. What all this has to do with young people must be obvious: It would be better to have social media in social studies and other core-curriculum subjects at school and to encourage public service in their extracurricular social media use than to block social media at home or school. Of course there’s no guarantee all teens will move past clicktivism to activism, but the evidence is undeniable that social media lower the barrier to entry into local, national, and global community service. An example is “The Kansas to Cairo Project,” putting American and Egyptian students together in a virtual world, Second Life, as well as L.A. and Washington, D.C.

Shirky also wrote that “the more promising way to think about social media is as long-term tools that can strengthen civil society” (and education, I’d add). He’s advocating an “environmental” approach instead of an “instrumental” one, as in embracing a social-media environment in school and statecraft, rather than focusing on specific tech or media tools (e.g., smart boards or iPads) as the solution – in other words, tools in the hands of activists (or learners), not tool-driven activism (or learning).

Related links

To delve more into youth civic engagement online, see…

*Active Participation or Just More Information?: Young people’s take-up of opportunities to act and interact on the Internet,” by Sonia Livingstone, Magdalena Bober, and Ellen Helsper at the London School of Economics (I’ll be writing more about this soon)
*Moving Beyond One Size Fits All to Digital Citizenship,” by school administrators Matt Levinson and Deb Socia
*Why digital citizenship’s a hot topic
*21st-century statecraft at home & school” upon hearing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Internet freedom speech just about a year ago.

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