The practice of participation: youth’s vocabularies around digital and offline engagement

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Danish adolescents’ perceptions of democracy and democratic participation in digital society This paper aims at providing insights in the intersecting opportunities and challenges that young Danes encounter in relation to their interest in being informed citizens and towards democratic participation. Various studies demonstrate how young citizens are aware of the importance of being informed, and of the expected active participation in democratic processes at all levels (Dahlgren 2007; Banaji & Buckingham 2013; Cammaerts 2014). Another part of the literature focus on the alleged passivity among young citizens regarding interest in information and political participation (Amnå & Ekman 2014; Bastedo 2014). The question, however, is if it is possible – and useful - to label a generation as politically passive or uninterested in political debate or the reverse? If the question is not so much if young people are motivated to seek information and to debate, but more if they have the opportunities to feel competent and included? If the traditional understandings of what political debate, participation and engaged citizenship is may be discouraging for young citizens? If the pronounced distrust in digital media in relation to political debate and participation is influenced by normative values and less on the actual opportunities and qualities? And if the discourses about the selfish, individualized adolescent, according to the young citizens’ experience, adds to a lack of what I call democratic self-consciousness? The studies that are used for this paper indicate that young Danes, if they are not among the few dedicated political activist, are aware of and have a well-defined understanding of democratic values and the importance of being well-informed and participating in debate. They find that they do not only have the right but also the plight to participate in the democratic processes that construct the foundation of society. They were brought up with these values. They do to a large degree, however, relate democracy to the traditional political system, to traditionally mediated debate in the traditional media and to traditional discourses about democratic values. But, they often express doubts about own abilities to crash the codes for being informed and for providing valuable input in debates; they express frustration over the predominance and low quality of digital/social media in their own everyday life and the experienced major authority of traditional media that are not central in their own information and communication universe. The following examples illustrate a few of the opportunities and challenges that young Danes experience in this context. The 18th birthday is the actual as well as symbolic cutting point for young Danes when it comes to the perception of being a citizen with citizen rights and plights. As 18 year old Charlotte says: “I was actually never very engaged politically until I turned 18. Then I started thinking: ’ok I have to make a choice myself’. You have more responsibility.” Charlotte is not politically active in the sense that she has joined a party or that she engages continuously in political debates. But, like many other young Danes, she looks forward very much to be able to conduct her citizen right, perform the ritual of the actual voting. To be able to do that she has to decide where to set her x. The question is, however, how she manages to establish a nuanced and adequate information level while at the same time struggling with her lack of political self-confidence and the discrepancies between her usually preferred information media and the perception, that the ‘real’ and important debate is going on in contexts, where she experiences that she stands on the outside and has very little to say (Amnå & Ekman 2014, Bastido 2014). Anders, a 19 year old boy, says that democracy is “somehow a citizen duty” and that there is more to it than voting, such as participating in debates ad being a member of organisations and parties. He finds that television, radio and newspapers are more trustworthy than Facebook and other social media and that the debates on social media are “really thin”. But, in the same sequence he states that traditional media are “theirs”, that is, the politicians’, and social media are ”ours”, that is, young peoples’ media. Still, he refers to Facebook as an opportunity because a large part of his everyday information and communication takes place in that context: “The debates could be like, well, it could be on Facebook. Or, it could be in kind of small groups. Like with one’s friends. I mean, if you talk things through, and you get a new view on things and they get a new view. Discussing things, that is a good idea.” Remarkably, Anders, like other participants, acknowledges social media / Facebook as an option for debate (Dahlgren 2015; Thorsen 2014) but he clearly has more trust in the information that is provided by traditional media and in the debates that take place in offline groups. The argument in the paper is primarily based on findings from two pilot studies: A new, qualitative study (January 2016) on young Danes, social media and perceptions of democracy; and a small survey conducted on December 3rd 2015, when Denmark voted in the referendum of Justice & Home Affairs. The pilot study comprehended five in-depth, individual interviews with 17-19 year old high school students. The focus was on use of information and news, perceptions of democracy and of their own potential participation in political debate with a focus on social media. The survey was a 24-hour, short questionnaire that was sent out through snowballing on Facebook, Twitter, sms, and e-mail. The target group was 18 to 24 year old Danes with the right to vote, because I was interested in new voters’ attitudes and experiences. It included 15 questions about information sources, Attitudes towards voting; debate cultures; active participation. The last question was an open form where the participants were asked to add free text replying to the question: “Do you have additional comments, you would like to add about your own experiences with democracy, elections (voting) and media?” I received 121 replies. The sample is not representative of the national population in the age group due to the sampling and analytical methods. Therefore, the findings can only be used as indicators of potentially areas of interest. References Amnå, E., and Ekman, J. (2014). ‘Standby Citizens: Diverse Faces of Political Passivity’, European Political Science Review 6(2): 261-81. Bastedo, H. (2014). 'Not “one of us”: understanding how non-engaged youth feel about politics and political leadership', Journal of Youth Studies 18(5): 649-65. Banaji, S. and Buckingham, D. (2013). The civic web: young people, the Internet and civic participation, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Bennett, W. Lance (2008). “Changing Citizenship in the Digital Age”. In W.L. Bennett (ed.), Civic Life Online. Learning How Digital Media Can Engage Youth, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 1-24 Cammaerts, B. et al. (2014). 'The Myth of Youth Apathy: Young Europeans’ Critical Attitudes Toward Democratic Life', American Behavioral Scientist 58(5): 645-64. Dahlgren, P. (2015). The internet as a civic space. In: S. Coleman (ed.). Handbook of Digital Politics. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing, pp. 18-34. Dahlgren, Peter (2007). Young Citizens and New Media, New York & London: Routledge. Schutz, A. (1946). The wellinformed citizen. An essay on the social distribution of knowledge. Social Research 13(4): 463-78. Thorson, K. (2014) 'Facing an uncertain reception: Young citizens and political interaction on Facebook', Information, Communication & Society 17(0): 203-16.
Original languageEnglish
Publication date2016
Publication statusPublished - 2016
EventAssociation of Internet Researchers' Annual Conference: Internet Rules - Humboldt-Universität, Berlin, Germany
Duration: 5 Oct 20168 Oct 2016
Conference number: 17


ConferenceAssociation of Internet Researchers' Annual Conference
Internet address


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