As Facebook and Twitter have come to play a larger role in getting the word out about issues such as unrest in Egypt, much of what is done using these social tools — particularly by younger users — has been criticized as “slacktivism.” In other words, it is seen as just empty gestures such as changing an avatar or posting a status update, rather than real activism around social issues. But a new study from the University of California has found that younger Internet users become more socially engaged in the real world, not just online. And the study also indicates that being online exposes younger users to more diverse viewpoints, in contrast to the view of the web as a political or social “echo chamber.”
The study, which was done by the university’s Humanities Research Institute, involved more than 2,500 high-school students, of which 400 were followed for a period of up to 3.5 years — making it one of the longest surveys of its kind. Supported by the MacArthur Foundation, the research looked at three types of behavior: politically-driven online participation, online exposure to diverse perspectives, and interest-driven online participation. It followed how often the students used blogs or social networks to share or discuss various social and political issues, how often they searched for information about such issues and how much they communicated with others.
One of the study’s main conclusions was that “spending time in online communities appears to promote engagement with society.” While many are concerned that spending time online will make young users socially isolated, the research showed the opposite to be true:
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 Internet can serve as a gateway to online and offline civic and political engagement, including volunteerism, community problem-solving, and protest activity.
The University of California study isn’t the only research that shows online activity can have a corresponding effect on socializing in the real world. A study from the Pew Research Center earlier this year found being active in social networks and other community-related activities online makes it more likely you will be involved with similar groups and activities in the offline world as well, and a recent paper reviewing some of the existing research in the area found something similar.
While the more recent California study focused on local and regional issues rather than global events such as Egypt — and also relied on self-reporting by the high-school students involved — it still lends credence to the idea that online activity can actually help younger users become more involved in real-world social activism or social awareness of some kind.
“We found that being part of online participatory communities tied to youth interests, political or not, exposes youth to a greater degree of diverse viewpoints and issues and is related to higher levels of civic engagement,” the study’s author, education professor Joe Kahne, said. “Both of these outcomes are good for democracy.”
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