In the context of growing concerns about democratic civic deficit, youth participation has emerged as a focus within a range of social and public policies in many western countries including Australia and the United Kingdom. At the same time, there is growing interest in the ways that participation is mediated by Information and Communication Technologies (ICT), in particular the internet. There are broadly two approaches to the study of the role of the internet for youth participation: the potential of ICT to reinforce traditional mechanisms of democracy; or, to create new forms of participation.
The first approach assumes a normative position on political participation and looks at how technology is extending or deepening democracy as a legal and administrative mechanism, and for strengthening the legitimacy of normative political ideas and culture (Montgomery et al., 2004, p. 102). The focus is often on the opportunities and effectiveness of ‘e-democracy’ in strengthening existing institutional arrangements (Lewis, 2005, p. 10), the ability of technology to link decision-makers and political elites to citizens (Dahlberg, 2001; Delli Carpini, 2000; Luhrs et al., 2001) and extending government to marginalised or ‘hard to reach’ groups, such as young people (Brackertz et al., 2005; Simpson et al., 2005). This form of e-citizenship has been criticised for focusing on communicating policy to young people and being government/decision-maker focused (Lewis, 2005, p. 12). There is also concern that digital technologies may reinforce the role of those who are already engaged, whilst further marginalising those who are not (Norris, 2001, p. 98). Studies in the UK (Livingstone & Bober, 2004) and Australia (Vromen, 2007) argue that class and level of education are predictors of internet use and quality of internet access. Furthermore, top-down mechanisms fail to effectively link policy makers with forms of online youth participation taking place through NGOs, youth-led sites or social movements.
The second approach challenges both the way that political participation is conceptualised (e.g., Norris, 2001; Vromen, 2003) and the way that it is researched (e.g., Coleman & Rowe, 2005; Livingstone et al., 2005). Survey-based research in the UK (Livingstone et al., 2005) and in Australia (Vromen, 2003) has deliberately explored a broad range of participatory opportunities, deepening our understanding of the range and forms of online participation. Nevertheless, one of the key challenges continues to be how ‘participation’ is defined (Livingstone et al., 2005, pp. 289-290). This dilemma reflects a wider limitation of existing research on young people’s political participation, epitomised by quantitative studies with predetermined notions of how young people relate to the political and how they translate their conception of the political into action (Marsh et al., 2007, p. 18; O’Toole et al., 2003, p. 53). Furthermore, it is often assumed that youth-led e-citizenship programs are more democratic than adult-led programs.
There is evidence that in both Australia and the United Kingdom, the internet has become a popular vehicle for policies designed to engage young people in democracy (Coleman & Rowe, 2005; Coleman, 2008; Collin, 2008; Vromen, 2008). However, less attention has been paid to the forms of e-citizenship being promoted to young people and whether these same forms being pursued by young people themselves.