Informing youth about polarizing political issues

Teach youth to be civically active, ask critical questions and listen to understand rather than respond.

News media and social media today are inundated with terrorist attacks, foreign policy, immigration and many other important issues impacting global citizens. Older youth are often first-hand consumers of these news headlines. Parents and educators play an important role in modeling appropriate behavior and helping youth understand complex issues. Consider these three tips to help youth develop an understanding of important issues:

  1. Read more than the headline. It is too easy when scrolling through a social media news feed to glance at a headline and think you understand the entire story. Click on the link and read the article. A reader with a critical eye will be able to differentiate between factual information and propaganda driven by an individual perspective. If the article sounds strange or too good to be true, check the sources or visit a fact-checking website.
  2. Work to understand both sides of an issue. Even when you have determined your personal opinion about an issue, read an article that presents an opposing perspective with an open mind. Understanding opposing viewpoints builds empathy and brings a deeper understanding of the issue.
  3. Strive beyond political party lines. Many youth have a deep understanding of party politics and form their opinions following party lines rather than doing their own research on issues. As evidenced by the typical gridlock of the U.S. government, party politics alone don’t often solve major problems. Though compromise doesn’t often hit the top of the news media headlines, it’s often the only way tough problems are solved. Michigan State University Extension provides non-partisan information on ballot issues and other hot topics throughout the year.

Michigan 4-H Capitol Experience is a statewide event where youth learn about and engage in Michigan state government issues and processes. As a participant in this event, youth can safely explore and debate hot topics while meeting with Michigan elected officials and watching and participating in government in action. As MSU Extension educators have observed youth attending this event are increasingly more informed about one side of an issue and polarized in their political views, staff are adding intentional consensus building and listening activities to the event.

Teaching youth to be civically active is only half of the goal. It’s equally important to teach youth to be informed, ask critical questions, and listen for the purpose of understanding rather than responding.