Guest blog post written by Ashley Brennan

After recently celebrating my 22nd birthday, age serves as one of the most internally—and externally—salient features of my identity. The category defined as “youth” (or “young people”) represents a heterogeneous group uniting all variations of gender, religion, race, ethnicity, class, and ability by the overarching transition period between childhood and adulthood. [1]

Youth on the rise

As presented by Euromonitor International, the beginning of 2012 marked the 7 billion milestone for the world’s population. At this point, approximately 50.5% of the 7 billion people inhabiting the planet, were below the age of 30. Predictions indicate this percentage of young people is on the rise and will reach 3.6 billion by the year 2020.

The United Nations foresees youth as the “new global power reshaping the world.”

It’s difficult to argue against this notion; youth undoubtedly encompass our collective futures. In an attempt to maximize future successes on this account, young people necessitate social, financial, academic, and professional investment and support during their development.

Until recently, I agreed with this notion in supporting youth as an emerging force in creating the future.

Our future is now

In their 2007 work on the “Unexplored Potential of Youth as Peace-builders,” Celina Del Felice and Andria Wisler present the relationship between youth and the “future” in the context of youth participatory budgeting and in a manner that distinguishes their assertion from previous schools of thought. Here, the two experts in youth participation argue that classifying youth as the ‘future” may not be enough. They explain that “in the [youth participatory budgeting process] young people have to make decisions and implement projects in the present. They become actors here and now” (Del Felice & Wisler, 2007).

A simple shift in thought with tremendous impact

Youth are more than the future; youth are a significant part of the present.

Youth Participatory Budgeting

This powerfully diverse assortment of young people deserves recognition and inclusion in the processes that affect them today; youth participatory budgeting (YPB) presents potential progress in this area.

Based on participatory budgeting developed in 1989, YPB involves the creation of autonomous spaces for youth to allocate portions of the local budget. The process consists of committees of young people who identify problems in their communities, research and develop solutions, discuss proposals, deliberate in collaborative competition, and vote for project implementation.

Although only a handful of YPB processes currently exist in Argentina, Colombia, Italy, Romania, Brazil, and the United States, the model presents a promising trajectory predicted for global expansion within the coming years. As YPB processes increase and improve in face-to-face settings, variations of the model might maximize success by taking an asset-based approach to fuse technology use with youth civic engagement.

Brennan conducting research on the impact of online youth participatory budgeting in Cluj-Napoca (Romania), with participant.

Brennan conducting research on the impact of online youth participatory budgeting in Cluj-Napoca (Romania), with participant.

Doomed for disengagement?

In building on existing assets, or strengths and skills, this strategy may (partially) counter the overwhelming messages of youth civic disengagement inundating research, reports, media, and messages throughout the 21st century. Experts in political socialization have demonstrated an increasing interest in this possibility. In 2008, Chris Bachan initiated exciting research on “Civic Engagement, Pedagogy, and Information Technology on Web Sites for Youth” by assessing 73 civic web sites intended for youth in the U.S. (Bachen et al., 2008).

In the 100th Arizona Town Hall Report on Civic Engagement, Nancy Welch and Emily Rajakovich from the Arizona Center for Civic Leadership purport that youth civic engagement is not declining, but rather transforming in response to the growth of social networking and additional changes in youth development (Rawlings, 2012).

An asset-based approach

Welch and Rajakovich challenge skeptics in youth participation to approach such transitions in patterns of youth engagement as opportunities to benefit civic engagement rather than solely as bleak statistics. Examples of such shifts in youth civic engagement include increased use of social networking sites, expanded engagement in service, and an intentional focus on social entrepreneurship (Rawlings, 2012). Understanding these new trends and avenues of engagement among youth present significant potential for revitalizing present—and future—instances of public participation.

Matthew Leighninger, the Executive Director of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium (DDC), expands on these ideas in his 2011 piece on “Using Online Tools to Engage—and be Engaged by—The Public.” Here, he highlights limitations and strengths of various stages in the processes of civic engagement in both face-to-face and online settings.

Two-way streets of (cyberlife) engagement

Leighninger advocates for a thorough understanding of the “two-way street” of civic engagement as this recent development establishes new precedents in participation with government leaders and processes. This “two-way street” of participation becomes especially salient in cases of online engagement whereby exchanges of ideas occur in instantaneous and continuous manners—particularly for youth who frequently participate in cyberlife engagement.

From this perspective, it seems beneficial to approach interactions of youth cyberlife engagement with two distinct forms of civic participation including youth participation in (1) voting and (2) “invited spaces,” or in-person and online spaces designed to encourage and sustain civic participation.

“I voted.” Did you?

The case of Facebook’s “I voted” button exemplifies the fusion of cyberlife engagement with voting.

What began in 2008 expanded to a “61-million-person experiment in social influence and political mobilization” that demonstrated the potential for online interactions to affect offline behavior. While this experiment revealed the statistically significant influence of online messaging in voter turnout for the population at large, future research may benefit in exploring specific effects of social media manipulation on voting patterns for youth as the demographic demonstrating the greatest decrease in voter turnout rates. This question raises particularly intriguing explorations in terms of accusations of youth activism as limited to online spaces and “feel-good participation” in “slacktivism” (Vitak et al., 2011).

Civic behaviors beyond voting

Cases of youth participatory budgeting that extend into online spaces exemplify the integration of cyberlife engagement in invited spaces.

In a similar manner, expanding explorations of intersections in youth cyberlife engagement and civic participation presents potential for deeper analysis of interventions based in cyberpsychology on civic behaviors beyond voting. As the quantity and quality of autonomous spaces for youth to contribute to—and take leadership in—participatory democracy processes, instances of online civic engagement specifically tailored to young adults are also increasing.

This increase calls for an enhanced understanding of the intricacies and impacts of online civic participation. In 2014 Hollie Russon-Gilman, a Civic Innovation Fellow with the Open Technology Institute, applied this approach to her analysis of online portions of Boston’s youth participatory budgeting process. Russon-Gilman highlighted the program’s integration of a SMS platform for participation as well as the online civic engagement platform entitled Citizenvestor.

As someone who idealistically, symbolically, and categorically identifies with more than 3.5 billion fellow young people, I recognize the potential for youth-led research on youth-led civic initiatives implemented by the (young) people and for the (young) people. The future for asset-based approaches in analyzing intersections of youth civic engagement and youth online engagement is now.

Impending questions await in the corners of civic cyberspace: Will we hide what we find from our virtual—and real—timelines or will we like what we discover?

Care to share your virtual “I voted” button and cast your ballot, anyone?


[1] The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) defines “youth” as a fluid category indicating the time period between completion of compulsory education and entrance into formal employment. In effort to maintain consistency throughout demographic data collection, the United Nations universal definition classifies “youth” as spanning ages 15 to 24. While this particular range varies slightly across regions and institutions, the developmental milestones achieved during “youth” surpass importance of the numeric perception of the term.


  • Bachen, C., Raphael, C., Lynn, K. M., McKee, K., & Philippi, J. (2008). Civic engagement, pedagogy, and information technology on web sites for youth. Political communication, 25(3), 290-310.
  • Bond, R. M., Fariss, C. J., Jones, J. J., Kramer, A. D., Marlow, C., Settle, J. E., & Fowler, J. H. (2012). A 61-million-person experiment in social influence and political mobilization. Nature, 489(7415), 295-298.
  • Del Felice, C., & Wisler, A. (2007). The unexplored power and potential of youth as peace-builders. Journal of Peace Conflict and Development, 11.
  • Leighninger, M. (2011). Using Online Tools to Engage—and be Engaged by—The Public. IBM Center for the Business of Government.
  • Rawlings, K. (2012).  Civic Engagement. Background Report. Phoenix: Arizona Town Hall.
  • Vitak, J., Zube, P., Smock, A., Carr, C. T., Ellison, N., & Lampe, C. (2011). It's complicated: Facebook users' political participation in the 2008 election. CyberPsychology, behavior, and social networking, 14(3), 107-114.