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Does Facebook boost civic engagement among American youths, too?

Participation in online communities increases civic engagement – but just socializing on Facebook doesn't, according to a new study of young Americans and the Internet.

Anti-government protesters sit next to a 'Facebook' graffiti sign during demonstrations inside Tahrir Square in Cairo on Feb. 7. A new study of American youth finds that engagement in online communities based on shared interests can increase young people's level of volunteering and community issues, but Facebook socializing doesn't.

Dylan Martinez / Reuters / File

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In Egypt, youthful revolutionaries spray-painted their thanks to Facebook on urban walls. In Wisconsin, a young demonstrator supporting union workers’ rights reportedly held up an iPad to play a scene from “The Empire Strikes Back” as he chanted against Gov. Scott Walker: “The Rebels brought down walkers; so can we.”

Digital media are changing the way young people participate socially and politically – and scholars are scrambling to keep up with the implications.

Some recent, first-of-its kind research examines the relationship between the Internet use and civic engagement of young Americans.

Youths involved in online groups based on common interests, even if those interests were not political, were more likely to increase their level of volunteering, charitable giving, and expressing themselves about community issues, compared with similar peers who were not involved in online groups.

Contrary to concerns that the Internet might isolate people in “echo chambers” where their own viewpoints prevail, “when young people spend time in online communities, [they are] more likely to be exposed to diverse perspectives,” says Joseph Kahne, an education professor at Mills College in Oakland, Calif., and lead author of the series of studies.

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