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Political knowledge declining among 18-25-year-olds


Study says the Internet makes it easy to shut politics out

OTTAWA, June 1, 2015 — A study by two Montréal researchers shows there is a significant decline in political knowledge among 18-25-year-olds in almost all long-established democracies.

Using data from various countries, the study concludes that the arrival of the Internet has changed the way young people access political information. Those who aren’t interested in politics in the first place can avoid hearing about it almost entirely, while the minority that is interested can become even more knowledgeable than before. As a result, says the study, a new and deeper digital divide has emerged. On the one side are those who use the Internet as a moat to protect themselves from political information, and on the other are those who use it as a bridge.

The study is co-authored by Henry Milner and Eric Guntermann. Milner is a senior researcher at the Chair in Electoral Studies at the Department of Political Science at the Université de Montréal; Guntermann is a PhD candidate in the same department. They are presenting the study at the 2015 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Ottawa.

It has been observed for a long time that youth participation in politics through such activities as voting has been dropping. In an interview, Milner says that until recently, it had been difficult to determine whether young people today actually know less about politics than did earlier generations. What he and Guntermann have found is that in the 20 stable democracies analyzed, political knowledge is greatest among people born in the 1970s—presumably because each generation up to the 1970s was better educated than the previous generation. Then it begins to decline, starting with people born in the 1980s. The decline roughly corresponds to the onset of the generation that grew up with the Internet.

Milner says that a study in the United States showed there was a decline in political knowledge once the choice of television channels grew. In other words, young people couldn’t avoid political information if there were only a handful of channels they could watch. But that information was easier to avoid as channel choice grew. “The Internet is another step in that direction,” says Milner, explaining that it makes avoiding political information that much easier for those who want to avoid it, while making detailed knowledge available to the smaller numbers who actually are interested.

Milner adds that the decline in political knowledge seems to be greater in some countries than in others. He attributes this to the fact that some countries have begun addressing the issue by adopting civic education techniques adapted to the culture of the Internet generation.

Henry Milner and Eric Guntermann will be presenting this research on June 2 at the 2015 Congress for the Humanities and Social Sciences in Ottawa. This presentation is called “The Internet Generation and the Digital Divide in Political Knowledge: A Comparative Analysis” and will take place at 10:30 am on the University of Ottawa campus in the FSS building, room 10003.

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