Youthful steps towards civic participation: does the Internet help?

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"The Internet is widely hailed as the technology to bring direct participatory democracy to the masses, enabling citizens to become actively engaged in the political process (Katz et al. 2001; Wellman et al. 2001).

Further, young people especially are dubbed ‘the Internet generation’ or ‘online experts’, labels they themselves relish, although some have challenged this generational discourse (Sefton- Green 1998; Facer & Furlong 2001).

In this article, we examine whether using the Internet draws young people into participation.

It seems to be widely assumed that the Internet can facilitate participation precisely because of its interactivity, encouraging its users to ‘sit forward’, click on the options, find the opportunities exciting, begin to contribute content, come to feel part of a community and so, perhaps by gradual steps, shift from acting as a consumer to increasingly (or in addition) acting as a citizen.

The UK Children Go Online (UKCGO) project conducted a series of focus group discussions, followed by a national survey of 9- to 19-year-olds across the UK, examining young people’s Internet use in detail. The project balances an assessment of two areas of risk with two areas of oppor- tunity in order to contribute to academic and policy frameworks on children and young people’s Internet use.

In total, 1511 interviews with 9- to 19-year-olds were completed. Some 1077 parents of children aged 9–17 agreed to complete a questionnaire of which 920 paper questionnaires were received and 906 were usable.

Based on the literature and findings reviewed thus far, the model pre- sented in Figure 1 hypothesizes several causal paths, as follows:6 1. Demographic variables (age, gender and social grade) have a direct influ- ence on the range of interaction with websites, and they have a direct influence on the range of civic websites visited. 2. Use variables (self-efficacy, average time spent online, years online) also have a direct influence on the range of interaction with websites, and they have a direct influence on the range of civic websites visited. 3. Demographic variables have an indirect influence on both interaction with websites and visiting civic websites, mediated by use variables. 4. Interaction with websites is positively associated with civic website visit- ing. Scales to measure the breadth of interaction and the range of civic websites visited were constructed as follows.


  • it appears that young people with certain demographic characteristics are more motivated to pursue civic interest participation than their peers, whether they use the Internet more or less and whether they feel more or less self-confident.
  • does the Internet invite its users to ‘sit forward’ and become engaged? Some of the opportunities we have examined in this article facilitate peer-to-peer connection, some provide information needed to participate in society, all require young people to go beyond the content provided for them by others and to seek out, select and judge, even to create content for themselves as part of a community of actors that is larger than any individual.
  • This suggests a positive trans- fer of skills and interests across online activities, providing moderate support for the possibility that young people who engage with the interactive potential of the Internet become drawn into a greater range of participation, including visiting civic and political websites.
  • short-lived participation
  • young people’s motivation to pursue civic interests online depends on their background and their socializa- tion, and it is not affected by the amounts of time spent or levels of expertise online.