Tips for helping teens & tweens navigate the world of online civic engagement
While young people have been key players in social and political movements for centuries, the internet has changed the landscape of tweens’ and teens’ activism and civic involvement, especially in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Speaking out about important issues and participating in causes they believe in can be empowering for young people and help them develop a sense of self and community; however, online civic engagement also comes with risks that families need to consider and be prepared to mitigate. Experts agree that communication is key, and parents who want to raise informed, civic-minded kids should discuss the issues of the day at home, listen to what their children have to say, and help them find safe, healthy, and productive ways of acting on their beliefs.
After a year as fraught as 2020, it’s understandable that you, as parents, may need a little extra guidance when it comes to children and civic engagement. We’ve invited a distinguished panel of researchers, clinicians, educators, and parenting experts to share their tips below on how best to encourage and protect your kids, both online and off.
1. Be a model citizen
Parents play a vital role in shaping how their children engage civically, so it’s important to model the kind of behavior you’d like to see from the next generation. “Talk about politics around your kids and listen to the news on the TV or the radio with them,” says Avril Keating, PhD, Director of the Centre for Global Youth at University College London. “Ask their opinions about civic and political issues and encourage them to have their own opinions.” Talking is just the first step, though. When possible, take action in your own community and share your experiences with your kids. Even if they’re too young to be involved themselves, it’s never too early to begin instilling the importance of civic engagement.
2. Talk it out
Children are naturally curious, and parents should encourage them to ask questions about current events as well as social and political issues. “These discussions can help kids understand the complexities of different issues and how to consider different opinions,” says Shelley Boulianne, PhD, Associate Professor of Sociology at MacEwan University. “Parents should also encourage their kids to form their own views, while explaining that those views can and should change over time in light of new evidence and as part of growing up.” Different generations often have different ways of expressing themselves, so try to keep an open mind about how your children develop and share their opinions, while at the same time monitoring to make sure they’re doing so safely and respectfully.
3. Burst the bubble
It’s easier than ever to live in an echo chamber of news and opinions that match your own particular worldview, but it’s essential for children to learn how to empathize and engage with those who understand the world in a different way. “Do you have friends who disagree with you about politics?” asks Ashley Rogers Berner, PhD, Director, Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy and Associate Professor. “Invite them over for dinner and include your kids in a civil disagreement. Watch the news on different channels and compare political slants on the same issue. As they get older, challenge them to find the best opposing views on a given topic.”
4. Don’t diss, discuss
In recent years, there’s been a significant growth in political expression amongst teenagers online, particularly on popular social media apps like TikTok, where everything from Black Lives Matter to gun control may be addressed. “On first glance, these videos may seem odd to parents, as they’re different from what we tend to recognize as ‘political expression,’” says Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, PhD, Professor of Communication & Journalism, Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “They may be infused with pop culture references, or be irreverent, humoristic—even goofy. Yet in fact the creation and engagement around such videos may be an important first step for young people experimenting with honing their political opinions and expressing their voices.” Rather than discouraging your children from creating or consuming such content, Dr. Kligler-Vilenchik recommends discussing the material with your kids and considering app use as an opportunity for a valuable lesson in civics.
“Have your children show you the posts that people their age have shared about current events,” adds Lynn Schofield Clark, PhD, Professor and Chair at the University of Denver and author of The Parent App. “This helps them to feel that young people – and they themselves – have something worth saying about the events that matter to them. Then you can use a group text to share stories among your family members to learn more about issues of concern to your children, modeling that there is always more to learn.”
5. Prepare for the worst
With the perceived veil of anonymity provided by the internet, online political discussions can often turn ugly. “When teens take a public stance on a civic, social, or political issue, they can experience empowerment and connection with others,” says Parissa J. Ballard, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Family & Community Medicine at the Wake Forest School of Medicine, “but they can also experience negative feedback from people who disagree.” Ballard recommends that parents help teens prepare for the feedback they might receive and, just as importantly, teach them how to engage respectfully with others whose opinions on civic, social, and political issues may differ from their own.
6. Engage remotely
While we may traditionally think of civic engagement as something that happens in the real world, there are productive online tools that can help children learn about issues and how to get involved at home. Henry Jenkins, PhD, Primary Investigator for the Civic Paths Research Group at the University of Southern California, recommends that you direct your children towards this toolkit, which was developed by The Civic Imagination Project to foster imaginative media play during the pandemic. “Moving beyond our negative focus on ‘screen time,’” says Dr. Jenkins, “we embrace a more generative mode of co-creating our culture through activities designed to help young people to think about how they live in communities and physical spaces with people, how they might learn to appreciate each other’s different perspectives and experiences, and how they might look at their surroundings, both places and things, in new, even magical ways.”
7. Join the club
Research shows that children who belong to civic-minded groups when they are young are much more likely to vote and volunteer in their communities when they reach adulthood, so it’s important for parents to help connect their kids to groups that promote collaboration and mutual respect. “Experiences in youth groups can help children develop the skills necessary for vibrant democracies,” says Daniel Hart, PhD, co-author of Renewing Democracy in Young America. These groups provide invaluable opportunities for “listening carefully to others, negotiating, consensus building, and working with others to advance a common goal.”
Furthermore, according to Janae Phillips, Director of Leadership and Education at The Harry Potter Alliance, one of the best ways for youth to develop civic skills is by finding a community. “Fan communities help youth develop confidence, resiliency, creative problem solving skills, and identity as leaders and activists,” she explains. “Youth are able to quickly connect and form bonds over shared love of their favorite books, movies, and shows, developing a community support system that allows them to dive into more complicated topics and stretch their comfort zone. Student fan activists have petitioned their school boards to support trans classmates, built libraries, organized to replace cut arts programs, and led demonstrations.”
8. Take appropriate risks
As parents, it is understandable that you want to keep your children safe; however, some risk-taking can be really beneficial for your teens. “Youth are often drawn to attending protests or demonstrations because they recognize racial or social injustices and want to express their passion on an issue,” says Laura Wray-Lake, PhD, Associate Professor of Social Welfare at UCLA. “Parents may be understandably reluctant to let their teens attend such events out of fear for their safety, but participation can help young people develop personal and civic identities.” Dr. Wray-Lake suggests having open conversations with your teens about events they’re interested in attending and how they can participate safely, whether with a trusted group or together as a family.
9. Don’t lecture
Teens today are remarkably informed and engaged with a whole host of issues, and it’s important for parents to meet their children where they are. “Ask them what issues they’re hearing about, what they believe is right, and what they see other people doing,” says Ellen Midaugh, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Child and Adolescent Development in the Lurie College of Education at San Jose State University. “Take your child’s interests seriously and resist the urge to tell them what they should be following or how they should feel about an issue.”
“Through discourse about civic and political matters, teens can explore issues from multiple sides and arrive at their final (for now) position while learning to disagree productively with parents’ support,” says Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, Ph.D., Director, CIRCLE at Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University. “If teens feel shut down, they might seek out online spaces and websites where they can feel validated, but where they will also be vulnerable to misinformation.”
10. Meet them where they are
“Young people’s concerns and interests are sometimes not heard because their language and mode of engagement do not line up with conventional expectations of what civic engagement looks like,” explains Sangita Shresthova PhD, Director of Research/Programs of Civic Paths Group at the University of Southern California. “So it’s important to meet your kids where they are, in terms of interests, in terms of popular culture, in terms of technology, even in terms of friendships. See what they care about and allow civics and politics to surface in unexpected places. Be there to help them make the connections. Take the time to listen, really listen, to the youth.”
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