[R]ecent findings from a longitudinal study of high school age students [suggests] that youth who pursue their Interests online are more likely to be engaged in civic issues.

Note that I have significantly changed the headline that accompanied this RRW story. The original (emphasis added):

Study Finds the Internet Makes Youth More Engaged Citizens

The use of “make” as the verb is telling: it suggests that correlation (those who use the Internet more are also more civicly active) is equivalent to causation: that is a fallacy. Moreover, this phrasing implies a lack of agency on the part of the human: the force of the Internet is so powerful as to cause a change in human behavior in the analog world!

In today’s sound-bite, Facebook-status and tweet-scanning world, headlines matter a lot, maybe more than they used to. To its credit, the headline isn’t link bait, but it is still misleading.

I’m not quibbling with the study itself, although the PR writers for the MacArthur Foundation (which funded the research, along with the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning) are almost as challenged as the RRW headline writer.

Does the Internet make for more engaged citizens?

This longitudnal study tracked 2500 youth from 19 California school districts for 3.5 years. A highlight of results:

  • Youth engagement in interest-driven online communities was associated with increased volunteer and charity work and in increased work with others on community issues.
  • The study found that digital media literacy education dramatically increased students’ exposure to diverse perspectives and boosted the likelihood of youth online engagement with civic and political issues.
  • Few youth, 5%, reported being exposed only to political views they agreed with.

Intellectually, I understand the need for research that counters the argument that people who are active online have no social skills or interest in engaging with the external world. But it drives me a little batty, too. It presumes a behavioral gulf the size of the Grand Canyon, that psychological motivation yields different behavior online compared to offline. Moreover, the use of a generalization — the Internet or being online — lumps together intellectual behavior (reading blogs, news analysis and the like) with community behavior (participating in forums or commenting on blog posts) and escapism (World of Warcraft). We don’t do that with offline behavior and we shouldn’t with online behavior.

You can learn more about the research project by poking around the MacArthur Network on Youth and Participatory Politics.

Written by Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

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