It’s no surprise that engaging teens in general is difficult– their attention spans are among the lowest of all age groups. And when you add to the mix a highly controversial, sometimes confusing subject such as politics, your likelihood of engagement becomes even lower.
Four years ago, President Obama made waves when he announced his candidacy on the Internet. A study by Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism indicates that social media started to become important to youth during the last campaign, and will be much more important this year.
The study is loud and clear about how youth are engaging in politics – the majority of youth receives most of its political information online and rarely reads a printed newspaper or listens to the radio for information. This is why campaigns that release YouTube videos and engage with voters using Twitter as a two-way communication tool find success: it’s all about bringing the youth into a conversation they have, until lately, been left out of. As Mileah Kromer, assistant professor of political science at Elon University, says, “For candidates now, having a Web site or a Facebook page isn't enough. For the same reason people love celebrity gossip, people love to follow candidates on Twitter. They want to know what makes people tick.”
Kromer says people are interested in candidates as individuals, not just what they have to say when they're in the spotlight. A great example is when Texas Gov. Rick Perry tweeted pictures of himself after a jog. The Rick Perry hashtag immediately started trending, which means people were talking about him, unrelated to his political stance.
While social media may not educate voters on political matters at all times, it is certainly engaging them, which will likely translate into more people turning out at the polls – especially teens. It’s even great for those who are not yet old enough to vote. They can begin to use social media to learn about the election and about politics in general. That way, as soon as they turn 18, they’ll be ready to participate in voting.
According to studies, 97% of 18 to 24 year olds in the U.S. use social media, and during this year’s election campaign, it’s predicted that one in four will use social media to share and discover election-related content, participate in polls and politically oriented groups, and discuss the election itself. Many of the teens who vote this year will register only because of a Facebook-heavy initiative, and many will use social media-based tools to help them compare candidates and determine who to vote for.
There’s no doubt that politicians hear the digital voices of social media-hungry youth. As we saw with Perry, this year’s candidates are quite active on social media, as are many journalists and campaign workers. Of course, these politicians have different levels of engagement, and having one’s campaign manager send out Tweets is not the same as a politician doing it himself. Nonetheless, the sheer number of politicians embracing social media on some level indicates that they are willing to adapt to the media usage of the younger generation. And given the numbers reported above, it seems to be working. The youth are responding and engaging without even knowing it.