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Connecting to Community in the Digital Age

Written by Ellen Middaugh
January 24, 2014

This piece was originally posted at APA Kids’ Planning Toolbox. Read the original post here.

By Ellen Middaugh
Mills College, Oakland, California

When I tell people I study the role of digital media in youth civic engagement, I am often greeted with complaints about the role of technology in our lives. I hear concerns that video games are keeping kids inside and away from the community, cyberbullying is exacerbating previously manageable conflicts, and texting and e-mail are depersonalizing communication.

These concerns are valid, but they only tell part of the story.  All too often, as parents and educators, we emphasize protection over empowered use.  As a community, we are thinking of ways to limit access to technology. We have rules about screen time and bans on cell phone use, but are we considering how our youth can make better use of technology to enhance community life?

In recent years, youth and their adult allies have begun to use new media in creative ways to connect to and build their communities.  Advances in mobile mapping applications have taken the well established practice of mapping community resources to a new level — allowing youth to collect, visualize and present data on a range of issues in both local and global communities,  as is the case with UNICEF’s Voices of Youth Maps.

Blogs and social network sites enable teachers and students to bridge the physical and structural arrangements that separate schools from the community and each other. For example, teachers and students from across the country are using the Youth Voices site to build an academic community where students share perspectives on issues in their community and get feedback and ideas from peers and adults in other settings.

Youth are also taking advantage of social media to publicize issues and advocate for access to resources.  We see this in the DREAM activist movement, which relies on both traditional activism and media activism, using social network sites to connect to each other, share stories, and gain a broader audience for their cause. Educators are also bringing social media into the classroom, inviting students to express opinions publicly, as does KQED’s Do Now program.

Such developments suggest that technology can play an important role in connecting to and enhancing our communities.  This possibility informs the work of many innovative teachers, such as those I get to see in action as part of the Educating for Democracy in the Digital Ageinitiative. 

However, if educators and parents shun technology, their fears that new media leads to distraction or destruction are more likely to come true.  Mobile phones can be used for great effect — to collect data, find information, and share ideas — but they are less likely to be viewed this way when banned from educational settings.  We discuss with students how to have respectful group discussions, but they are figuring it out for themselves in online discussions.

If we want to see empowered use of technology for building stronger communities, we need to think about the promises as well as the perils of technology for the health civic life.

Image: Graphic from Voices of Youth Maps website.

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