Engaging young people can be a difficult task. In the USA, one organisation is stepping forward to find a solution. Meet CIRCLE.
Many people spot the discrimination or youth underrepresentation in civic life. But not everyone does something about it.
As usual, serving as a platform for youth activists, in this piece, Youth Time highlights the contribution of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE), a non-partisan, independent research organisation focused on youth civic engagement in the United States.
Part of the Tisch College for Civic Life at Tufts University, it conducts research on youth participation, leveraging that research to improve opportunities for all young people to gain and use the skills they need to participate more in civic life.
One form they ensure youth have a voice is by working in Youth in Media for Democracy and understanding how Young People Created Media to Uplift their Voices in 2020.
We spoke to two CIRCLE Research Assistants who have been leading much of CIRCLE’s work on youth and media- Madeline McGee and Ruby Belle Booth, who elaborate about why studying how young people engage with social and political issues online is paramount for understanding youth civic engagement in the 21st Century.
They consider it vital to understand how young people interact with media and what challenges and opportunities exist for media to be a tool of civic development and participation.
In this interview, they share more on their efforts towards expanding youth’s access to civic information and participation, how youth is using media to make their voices heard, and the role of online civic engagements.
Also, a very crucial argument of his article is how youth voices can strengthen political debate and democracy.
In order to give context to their work, initially Booth shares that there are systemic inequalities in the U.S that can prevent some youth from marginalised or under-represented backgrounds from engaging in civic life.
“Our research tries to document these barriers with the goal of eliminating them,” she adds.
Besides researching how young people in the U.S. contribute to civic life, CIRCLE seeks to understand how to expand access to civic participation for all young people.
Youth in Media for Democracy is part of CIRCLE’s research that focuses on understanding how young people engage with the surrounding media.
“Many young people in the U.S. have grown up in a different media landscape than previous generations, with online and social media both playing a huge role in the development and expression of young people’s social, political, and civic identities.”
Booth says that studying how young people engage with social and political issues online is paramount for understanding youth civic engagement in the 21st century.
“It helps us to understand the opportunities for using media to expand access to civic information and participation.”
Youth and Online Civic Engagement
Two of CIRCLE’s recent analyses, Young People Created Media to Uplift their Voices in 2020 and Young People Turn to Online Political Engagement During COVID-19 look at how young people’s civic engagement manifested online around the 2020 election.
CIRCLE looked at how young people relied on social media as a source for information about the 2020 elections, as well as how they turned to social media and other forms of media creation as a way of engaging with social and political issues.
They found that this type of media creation helps young people feel more empowered, informed, and represented.
“However, one of our key findings is that access to civic opportunities online is not equal, and there are a lot of differences across race, ethnicity, and gender that can perpetuate existing inequities in civic participation,” Booth explains.
Also, during 2020, CIRCLE concentrated more on the relationship between media and election participation among young people.
Booth shares this experience.
She believes one reason studying this topic in the 2020 elections was especially interesting was because of how COVID-19 affected civic participation.
“Because of safety precautions and regulations put in place by health authorities, a lot of young people were isolated from their normal social, political, and educational activities, meaning that the digital space became even more important for civic expression and engagement.”
She further makes a great point- that online civic life continued throughout the pandemic speaks to its power for expanding access to engage, but it also raises the question of who doesn’t have access to online spaces.
There are some young Americans, especially those living in rural communities, who don’t have equal access to these opportunities because of a lack of broadband access.
“Although there is great potential for young people to uplift their voices through media creation, this isn’t an activity that is available to every young person in the same way.”
CIRCLE Helps Youth, Youth Helps Communities
In the second part of the interview, McGee tells us why youth are neither apathetic nor disengaged from civic life.
Contrary, she goes on, CIRCLE has found that youth care deeply about their communities and the social and political issues that affect them.
“There are a wide range of conditions—from how the American electoral process functions, to how civic education is offered in different contexts, to how media inform youth about their role in the democratic process—that work together to affect whether and how young people’s commitment translates into tangible actions like voting.”
She further adds that media not only provide an avenue for young people to receive political information, but a pathway into civic discussions.
“Even before young people reach the age at which they may take part in formal political processes like voting, the media messages they receive shape their understanding of their communities, political issues, and their role as citizens.”
“Depending on the media conditions that exist in a young person’s life, they may or may not be exposed to information that empowers or engages them, and they may or may not have opportunities to contribute to political conversations.”
This affects whether they come to think of themselves as people with the ability or know-how to contribute.
Many youths say traditional news media do not represent them accurately, she adds.
Youth Brings Unique Voices to Democracy
When asked about how young people can engage with CIRCLE’s work, McGee mentioned the importance of youth understanding that their voices are valuable!
“Our democracy is stronger and more just when everyone takes action to become involved in it, and young people bring unique perspectives, new ideas, and invigorating passion into social and political conversations,” she says.
CIRCLE’s work on Youth in Media for Democracy is deeply intertwined with media literacy, or the ability “to access, analyse, evaluate, create and act using all forms of communication,” as defined by the National Association for Media Literacy Education.
“We consider media literacy to be a core civic skill not only because it helps young people separate truth from falsehood and because it equips them with the skills and knowledge they need to responsibly consume the information, they will need to act as citizens, but also because it empowers them to know what options are available to them to take action through media.”
Conclusively, Booth and McGee recall the CIRCLE team has outlined some ways that young people can increase their voice in media on their Rep Us page, with a lot of these recommendations centred on engaging with more traditional news sources.
Believing that young people are experts on so many issues that affect their daily lives, they both encourage youth to continue using social media as a place to express their views on socio-political issues and to understand that their voice matters.
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