Youth civic engagement on the upswing

Programs like 4-H Capitol Experience improve civic attitudes.

It may come as no surprise that studies released in the late 1990s and early 2000s documented a profound decline in youth voting rates, civic knowledge, and interest in politics. Given the expansion of technology and the decline in trust in government institutions during the past decade, it may seem that today’s youth would be even less civically involved.

Yet one study, conducted by the Youth and Participatory Politics research network, found that those who used new media and social networking were more likely to be politically engaged. Today, youth are using cell phones, websites, Facebook/Twitter, and other media tools to connect with peers. A decrease in youth participation in traditional institutions fails to account for this increased civic engagement. One recent article cited that 70 percent of 18 to 25 year olds saw the Internet as a useful source of political and issue information (compared to 48 percent of those over 25). Additionally, this age group saw the Internet as the most useful source of such information, outstripping television news, newspapers, radio, magazines, personal conversations, and direct mail.

Yet adults cannot count on youth self-navigating through the complexities of government and civic action on their own. Research complied by Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement  seems to indicate that young people must have the necessary support and opportunities to encourage their civic and political participation during childhood and adolescence. School-based service-learning programs are one example of this support.

A 2005 study from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) indicates that young people who have the opportunity to participate in high-quality, long-term classroom-based learning, coupled with hands-on experiences in communities or institutions may have higher rates of academic achievement and youth leadership. These opportunities also enhance young people’s critical thinking and social skill-building abilities.

Michigan State University Extension works to build youths’ civic capacity through an annual event that supports and encourages civic leadership. 4-H Capitol Experience is a four-day, intensive workshop and conference for high school students that immerses teens in the people, processes, and policies of state government. Every year, between 50 and 100 teens from around the state converge on Lansing, Mich. to experience state government in action and learn how they can influence public policy issues.

Capitol Experience includes a role-play experience in a mock-legislature, visits with state representatives and senators, trips to community and state agencies, discussions with lobbyists, and witnessing the state House and Senate in action. A 2011 pre- and post-survey of Capitol Experience participants revealed that 88% of participants thought more positively about government after attending the event.  

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