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Does Facebook boost civic engagement among American youths, too?

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The research comes at a time when concerns have surfaced again about youths’ political and civic engagement. After a participation spike in the 2008 presidential election, in which 51 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds voted, just 23 percent of that age group voted in 2010, according to The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University.

And 34 percent of high school seniors didn’t reach even “basic” competency on the civics exam of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in 2006.

Fifty-seven percent of the youth surveyed in Kahne’s studies reported at least some online exposure to those holding diverse perspectives, while only 5 percent said they mainly saw views aligned with their own; the rest had little exposure to views in either category, or were uncertain how to answer.

While being part of online groups tied together by hobbies or interests was linked to increased civic engagement, merely socializing with friends through sites like Facebook was not.

The findings are drawn from a survey of more than 2,500 high-schoolers from a diverse set of California school districts, and a subset of more than 400 that were followed for up to three and a half years. Researchers statistically controlled for factors ranging from parental involvement to political orientation so they could isolate the impact of Internet activity.

Education on digital media literacy in high school or college was found to dramatically boost online politically-driven participation and exposure to diverse views.

“Nobody controls the way young people are going to use the Internet,” Kahne says, “but there may be ways that educational institutions, parents, and designers of platforms can think about how could they make it more likely that folks will tap the promise of these digital media and avoid some of the possible pitfalls.”

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