Kelley O’Brien is the Director of the North Carolina Civic Education Consortium, a program of the School of Government and one of the five North Carolina Civic Health Index partner organizations.
Last year, the NC Civic Education Consortium released the 2010 North Carolina Civic Health Index, a study that used data from the U.S. Census Bureau Current Population Survey to assess the strengths and weaknesses of civic life in North Carolina. The study outlined several gaps in civic participation, most notably, that North Carolina’s Millennial generation, those born after 1981, is the least civically engaged of any age group in the state. New research suggests that online communities may be one solution to North Carolina’s problem of low youth civic engagement.
The North Carolina Civic Health Index measured social capital through two measures: 1) participation in civil society (belonging to groups or associations like the PTA or serving in public office) and 2) interpersonal connections (working with neighbors, talking with friends and family). By these measures, North Carolina youth had low levels of social capital. However, emerging research on young people’s use of online communities suggests that youth are forming interpersonal connections though online communities rather than through traditional face-to-face interactions. In short, asking young people about their interactions with neighbors, family, and friends may not accurately measure young people’s interpersonal connections. It may be more appropriate to ask youth about their participation in online communities, such as those that address politics, social justice, or even popular culture.
Henry Jenkins, an expert in participatory media and society, sees online participatory cultures as venues for diverse groups of young people to connect with one another and develop social capital. And, a recent study of California high school students found that online nonpolitical interest-driven communities can provide a valuable form of social capital where diverse perspectives are discussed.
Researchers Ellen Middaugh and Joseph Kahne hypothesize that digital media will increasingly “become key to many aspects of civic and political life including how people get news and information in issues, how funds are raised for candidates, where and how perspectives on issues and candidates are communicated and shared, and how people are mobilized for some kinds of issues and political campaigns.” If this is the case, then young people are uniquely poised to flourish in this environment. And, if this is the case, then it is important that youth are not discouraged from using technology. They should be encouraged to use it properly: to build connections, to work with people with whom they would not normally be able to work, to improve their communities, and to have their voices heard.
For more information on this topic, please see Engaging North Carolina’s Generation Z in Civic Life.