Amplifying Young Voices: Understanding Socially Mediated Political Participation of Young People

Year of production: 2024

The political views and political participation of young people are shaped by social media. Even seemingly apolitical online activities that youth engage with often carry political weight. Liking an LGBTQ+ rights post, commenting on how climate change affects them personally, creating memes about a local politician and engaging in fan communities enable young people to form opinions on societal issues and connect with their like-minded peers. While online political activities have been devalued in recent years as not real enough or not sufficiently motivated (e.g. the notions of clicktivism or slacktivism), an abundance of research has indicated it is an important ​​​​​​form of participation.

However, online activities do not occur in a vacuum, as youth’s political participation is best interpreted as an ecosystem combining relationships with family, peers, school, and the Internet. This essay is informed by evidence from both existing research as well as a recent empirical study Digigen where we studied the role of the Internet and ICTs in young people’s (16-18 YO) political participation and digital citizenship in Estonia, Greece and the UK.

Young people often find social media to be a gateway for political engagement and participation. As one teenager stated, “In fact, it was the Internet that got me involved in BLM (Black Lives Matter), as the videos on the Internet had a very strong emotional impact on me.” Internationally, young people who consider themselves active, as well as those who perceive themselves more politically passive than they’d like, there tends to be agreement on what the crucial political topics are – the issues most important to young people are global justice that generate engaging content online (LGBTQ+ issues, climate change and environmental justice issues, gender and racial equality issues). At the same time, youth often find national party politics boring and local politicians ‘cringe.’ However, when party politics touches upon young people’s core beliefs, addresses those same issues of social justice, or when local events or tragedies occur (e.g. police brutality, highly publicised issues of anti-gay violence or femicide), youth are more likely to become engaged. As addressed by a young person actively engaged in the 2020 LGBTQ+ marriage equality initiative in Estonia: “I have become active now, because honestly, if we let EKRE’s1 fascist views and intolerance grow, the situation for minorities might get as bad here as it is in Poland.” The way to activate young people in terms of local politics is to highlight how it intersects with issues they already care about.

Polite debate vs standing up for those who need it

Regardless of young people’s level of participation, they tend to speak of tolerance as something to strive for. Interestingly, however, for youth who are not politically active, tolerance is more likely to mean being polite, respectful and avoiding conflict. This is particularly the case in Estonia, where political activism via organisational membership has a shorter history due to the Soviet past. For politically active youth (i.e. those who are already involved in political organisations and activist groups, speak up online to spread messages, or participate in marches and protests), tolerance means standing up for the vulnerable and fighting for equality and justice. Young activists consider silence to be both a privilege and something careless and selfish.

Young people have many trajectories towards political activism. Some are invited along by friends, whilst others respond to online calls to action. ​​​​One teenage LGBTQ+ activist’s journey began with what she described as a „meant to be“ moment when they witnessed a volunteer call online. Their activist journey saw them develop from being an ordinary teenager to being elected the managing head of an LGBTQ+ organisation in their town and collaborating daily with established politicians to organise events for LGBTQ+ youth. The pride in their contribution was evident: “this is when we realised that there are so many under 18-year-old people, 13 to 15-year-olds, who need a safe space, who need a place where they can go, and this became our mission, and we became much more active.”

Moreover, youth who become active are often active across various causes and issues. For example, the aforementioned LGBTQ+ organisation went on to organise other events, including a riverbed clean-up. All the food for their events was sourced from dumpster diving, which is considered a form of environmental activism. Further, seeing first-hand how local government functions and collaborating with city leaders can be very motivating for young activists. While they care about big social issues, they are also focused on their own futures and possible careers. Being able to learn from and network with competent adults that take them seriously and even partially share their worldview is a valuable resource. Finally, while young people often elevate big global issues as those that matter, small hyperlocal issues are another avenue through which youth get politically engaged, especially for those who consider themselves too busy with schoolwork to actively participate in political organisations. Therefore, participatory budgeting and participatory governing initiatives (e.g. where a park should go, or what new public space investment to fund) incentivise youth to speak up. It has been shown that having voted once is the best predictor of future voting activity, so the best way to engage young people is to make participating in their first elections something that feels like both a meaningful exercise of political will and a celebratory event.

Debating at the dinner table

Some young people appear to naturally find their footing and join organisations, while others struggle with the confidence needed to participate. It is one thing to be “emotionally impacted” by other people’s stories online, but expressing those emotions is not so straightforward, and again social media plays a role. Young people often look for arguments and rhetorical techniques used by internationally known social media content creators so that they can learn to express themselves more persuasively. However, a sense of safety is crucial for youth to be able to speak out online. While it is a familiar environment to many, it is also a space where bullying and ridicule are commonplace and, to an extent, even expected. Devastatingly, youth have often witnessed that it is adults, rather than other young people, whose (online) discourse is dismissive or even hurtful, which hinders their self-assurance. It can be demotivating to share one’s opinions when a grumpy middle-aged person will call you a ‘snowflake’ or resort to the folk saying that “a child should be seen not heard”. Despite young people holding the belief they have the right to an opinion and a responsibility to share it, the acerbic conversational culture online curbs their enthusiasm. The extent to which youths fear potentially negative feedback or harassment online is strongly mediated by their familial relationships and the alignment of their views with those of their family.

The beliefs and actions of family members and peers shape young people’s political views and their sense of political agency through direct influence as well as through clashes of opinion and juxtaposition. For example, in the Digigen project some young Estonian people shared disheartening childhood memories of family members’ discriminatory, or hateful remarks regarding certain types of other people. We were told “I couldn’t understand why my grandparents were so mean about people of other racial background or sexual identification.” A sense of diverging from family members’ views directed young people to social media in search of information, which often widened the gap between their views and those of their parents and grandparents. Young people believe that consuming societal and political content (especially first-person narratives) on social media makes them more open-minded and empathetic of the plight of others. Some also link older generations’ perceived prejudice specifically to their limited social media use.

However, whether family members’ views align or diverge, it is the tone of conversations at home that matters most for young people’s political self-efficacy. Families with respectful conversational cultures provide young people with the confidence to express themselves even on societally sensitive topics. Healthy dinner table debates also increase young people’s citizenship literacies (in particular their capacity to formulate and express their opinions). Thus, the dinner-table atmosphere shapes young people’s perceptions of their ability to make an impact, including their ability to withstand online pushback or even bullying, should that occur. When youths feel their voices are heard and valued, they are more inclined to speak out and take action.

Unfortunately, not all young people have positive experiences at home and find it difficult to discuss with their families due to conflicts or fear of punishment. They often resort to avoiding certain topics altogether to prevent arguments. Unsupportive families are often listed among the reasons (alongside a lack of time due to a heavy schoolwork burden, and limited confidence or skills when it comes to persuasively expressing one’s political opinions) why young people do not engage in politics.

In conclusion

Generally, even youth are quite well-informed about politics. While international politics that resonate loudly across the Internet (e.g. American or Russian presidential elections), and local politics with high meme potential (e.g. when an MEP says something outlandish or controversial) tend to be engaged with more, youths point out that it is impossible to avoid social justice issues today. Inevitably, their favoured sports star, gamer or pop artist will have something to say. Therefore, in conversations centred on increasing youth political participation, it is prudent to move past the conventional questions of access (to the Internet), knowledge (of politics or the news in general) and digital literacies, and instead contemplate how to enhance young people’s sense of agency, their competencies and their confidence in terms of self-expression, as well as their awareness of the role of emotions in interpreting (political) information in the noisy and convoluted information systems of the modern world. While social media offers a dominant infrastructure for forming and expressing political views, it is also a very nuanced discussion and information ecosystem and successfully navigating it requires competencies that are less about evaluating the veracity of information and more about mindfulness, emotional regulation and a sense of agency that hinges on the young person’s broader support networks.


Photo of Katrin Tiidenberg
Katrin Tiidenberg

Katrin Tiidenberg is Professor of Participatory Culture at the Baltic Film, Media and Arts School of Tallinn University, Estonia. She is the author and editor of multiple books on social media, digital visual cultures and digital research methods, including, most recently “Tumblr” (2021, co-authored by Natalie Ann Hendry and Crystal Abidin, and the award-winning “Making sense of the Datafied World: a Methodological Guide” (2020, in Estonian, co-edited with Anu Masso and Andra Siibak). She currently leads an international research project on visual digital trust (TRAVIS) as well as the Participatory Wellbeing Research Group of the newly funded Estonian Centre of Excellence of Wellbeing Sciences. Her research interests span social media, digital cultures, networked visuality, Internet governance and self-care.

Photo of Patience Gombe
Patience Gombe

Patience Gombe, a social media researcher at the Baltic Film, Media, and Arts School, Tallinn University, holds a master’s degree in Screen Media and Innovation from the same institution. Her research focuses on how content creators establish trust with audiences. Currently, she serves as a research assistant on the Trust and Visuality (TRAVIS) project, investigating trust formation in news and social media images concerning well-being and health. With 16 years of diverse industry experience worldwide, spanning television production, broadcast, social media, and marketing, Patience is deeply interested in the societal impact of media usage and its role in shaping perceptions.