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Youth engagement through social media

First study to reveal how lead users have been successful in applying social media to foster civic engagement among young citizens.

Civic engagement among young people in Western democracies has been on the decline. How can social media be applied to foster such engagement? (Photo: Shutterstock)

Social media is a natural component in the daily life of young people. Consequently, they expect  dialogue and contact from whereever they are –whether connecting with the girl next door, an editor, a celebrity or a politician.

Previous studies have shown that young people tend to use social media as a channel for political and civic engagement to a larger extent than adults. There has been some concern in recent decades that social involvement among young people is declining, which makes it all the more important to explore the possibilities offered by social media.

Petter Bae Brandtzæg (Credit: Gry Karin Stimo):

“In social media civic engagement  is often non-committal, informal and unstructured – a kind of grass-roots engagement. It is a challenge for organisations with a social mission, such as government bodies, news outlets, political parties and NGOs, to make use of this,” says Petter Bae Brandtzæg, senior scientist at the Norwegian research concern SINTEF.

He is leading a project to design innovative, social web services for young people, where partner organisations become an arena for young civic engagement. The project is funded under the VERDIKT programme at the Research Council of Norway and by affiliated project partners.

Although the data only cover one country, the project has broad relevance in light of Norway’s position as an advanced digital country. According to Statistics Norway, 93 percent of Norwegian households currently have access to Internet. Furthermore, while adult participation in social issues may diverge in different parts of the world, youth cultures appear to converge to a larger extent.


As part of the project, the researchers interviewed 17 lead users, or representatives of organisations that are leaders in using social media to engage young people. This includes individuals from big media houses, information portals, digital design agencies and government bodies. They also interviewed young end users (16-26 years) about their experiences with online civic engagement and the barriers they encounter.

“To our knowledge, no studies have previously been presented on the experiences of organisations that are successful in applying social media to increase the civic engagement of networked young citizens,” says Dr Brandtzæg.

Old models of communication and  traditional hierarchical structures, is part of the reason why many organizations struggle to understand how they can reap the benefits of social media. «I would rather die than become friends with my local government on Facebook», responded a teenager to an advisor of a Norwegian municipality.

“There is a gap here that we are trying to close,” says the project manager. He thinks good use of social media can strengthen different types of organisations – from media or humanitarian organisations to the public sector.

Same level involvement

Designing for mobile first might be a good way to reach young people. (Photo: Shutterstock) One of the most important findings is that the platforms need to allow young people to participate on the same level as adults. The interviews with young people show that they often feel sidelined in organisations. “They want a level of influence and cooperation that is similar to what adults have,” says Dr Brandtzæg.

Lead users point out the importance of social media being part of an organisation's overall strategy to collaborate with young people. Immediate feedback and dialogue combined with a clear goal for the engagement, is important. User involvement is especially critical in periods of development. For online services under development in delTA, young people are practically developers themselves.

This has been the case in many of the success stories from lead users. One example is the newspaper Nordland, winner of the World Young Reader Prize from the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers in 2013. Here, young people have been directly involved in deciding on stories and channels for publishing.

A common barrier is time. In many cases young people feel things move too slowly – whether we are talking about material being published too slowly, or issues surfacing too slowly on the agenda of local government. “Where decisions are made quickly, and young people get immediate response, is where we find a lot of the success stories,” explains Dr Brandtzæg.

Language is another very important factor. A lot of the time this is also a barrier, either because the language is too difficult, or because it is reflecting an effort to be cool. “Young people are looking for respect and seriousness. Organisations that manage this have young people as language consultants», says Brandtzæg.

He adds that the chances of getting young people to read long texts online are slim. His advice is to condense the content to very short snippets, and use a visual language. «Organisations that design for mobile phones first are often successful because they need to prioritise and weed out anything superfluous,” says the senior scientist.

Tailoring the content to fit the wide array of youth groups and their interests is another key factor. Different subcultures have different preferences, opinions and needs. “Lead users point to the importance of identifying key stakeholders with differing interests and tailoring engagement and dissemination tactics to each subgroup,” says Dr Brandtzæg.

New expressions of engagement

Tord Selmer-Nedrelid (Credit: Tor Andersen) “We have to change,” says Tord Selmer-Nedrelid, editorial developer at Amedia Development. Amedia is a partner in delTA and one of the three largest media companies in Norway, as well as whole or partial owner of many local and regional newspapers. Amedia received the World Young Reader Price for 2014.

“The young people of today have completely different media habits, and express their civic engagement in other ways than  before. Given the role of journalism and media as the fourth estate, it is essential for us to understand how this civic engagement will be expressed in coming generations of media users,” says Selmer-Nedrelid.

Organisations who embrace this will need to change the way they produce material, the formats for publishing and their fundamental way of communicating.

 “As civic engagement is turning to social media, organisations need more insight into what works and what does not work in practice to engage the younger networked crowd in civic participation. Successful innovation capabilities are an essential asset for organisations to compete in a globally mediated world,” says Brandtzæg.

A paper on the study has been submitted to the conference CHI 2015.

Other references:

Brandtzæg et al (2014); Facebook Likes: A Study of Liking Practices for Humanitarian Causes. International Journal of Web Based Communities, 10.(4) 258-279:

Johannessen et al (2014); The Role of a Political Party Website: Lessons Learnt from the User Perspective. Lecture Notes in Computer Science Volume 8654, pp 52-63.

Brandtzæg et al (2012); Designing for youth civic engagement in social media. Proceedings of the 9th international conference on Web Based Communities and Social Media 2012, Lisbon, Portugal, July 19-21, 2012. IADIS Press pp. 65-73. (Received Conference Best Paper Award)

Quick project facts:

Name: Participate – youth civic engagement online
Responsible institution: Opinion AS
Project leader: Petter Bae Brandtzæg at SINTEF ICT
Financing: 13,4 million NOK from the Norwegian Science Council, and 26 million NOK from the project partners
Project partners: SINTEF, The Oslo School of Architecture and Design, Plan Norway, Kongsvinger municipality, Amedia and NRK


Written by:
Kristin S. Grønli
Last updated: