July 01 2015

Social media and youth political engagement

Leyva-RodolfoLecturer in Sociology and Criminology at Middlesex University Dr Rodolfo Leyva is examining which factors could play a part in influencing youth democratic practices.

In the UK, as in much of the d­­­emocratic world, political disengagement (particularly amongst youth populations) continues to grow at alarming rates, which raises serious concerns over the present and future health and nature of UK democracy.

There is optimism that social media and the digital practices that they engender such as blogging, content sharing and social networking, will help to ameliorate or even reverse this disengagement by expanding the public sphere, thus enabling young people to develop alternative and more direct modes of democratic participation. Indeed, political campaigns, non-governmental organisations and advocacy groups are increasingly turning to social media to help raise youth political awareness and participation.

However, having been a member of several US and UK political activist groups during the advent and spread of social media, I have seen no discernible rise in the number of youth participants or political victories. To be blunt, I find that the optimism surrounding the potential political mobilisation effects of social media to be largely misplaced.

While my anecdotal experiences can hardly be counted as concrete evidence, the empirical literature on how social media use affects youth political engagement has drawn highly equivocal and contradictory findings – and highlighted a number of gaps in our understanding of these processes.

Empirical literature on how social media use affects youth political engagement has drawn highly equivocal and contradictory findings.

This is mostly because the large majority of studies from this literature, irrespective of their optimistic or sceptical stance, base their claims on statistical models that exhibit, among others, one or more of the following theoretical and methodological limitations:

  1. Existing models conflate and measure offline and online political engagement as a single construct. This conflation is problematic, because although they can in many contexts complement one another, offline and online political engagement distinctly differ in associated risks, costs, levels of required commitment and potential socio-political impacts.
  2. Existing models rely on narrow conceptions of offline political engagement that are mostly based on formal participation in major elections. As such, these models do not account for young people’s understandings of politics and democracy, or their knowledge of and engagement in the more direct forms of democratic participation.
  3. Existing models are based on data gathered from conventional self-reported questionnaires, which may fail to capture how youth actually use social media.

What can we learn?

Now, despite my cynicism, I think that there is still a lot to learn from this research if it is done correctly. To this end, I designed an online survey that partly addresses the abovementioned limitations, and I currently need undergraduate volunteers to take it.

The survey takes anywhere from 12 to 25 minutes to complete, and is in many ways no different from those used in the research that I critiqued above. However, since I designed it using Qulatrics software, the online survey does have innovative features.

For example, questions related to social media uses and online political practices partly simulate realistic settings by asking participants to choose from a series of images of popular social media interfaces (e.g. Twitter feeds, Facebook newsfeeds) that display embedded political and non-political texts. This unique simulation feature should help to better gauge how youth actually use social media. Additionally, the survey also contains distinct measures for online and offline political practices, as well as for varying forms of democratic practice.

Unfortunately, I don’t have enough data yet to dish out any meaningful preliminary results. Hence, I need more volunteers. Therefore, if you are an undergraduate student at any UK university from any year and on any course, and would like to participate, please follow the link below.


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