The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Does arguing about politics turn young people off? Surprisingly, no.

Young and old supporters cheer Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during a political rally in Lexington, Kentucky on Monday May 16, 2016. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Even before this year’s contentious election cycle, political scientists have been wondering how citizens are affected by regular exposure to heated political disagreement. Does it energize us to get more involved — or make us cynical and disengaged? We were particularly interested in how exposure to and engaging with political disagreement affects young people, who could make up one of the largest generations in the 2016 electorate.

Some studies suggest that all of this disagreement should decrease political engagement. But our research shows that being exposed to and even getting involved in political disagreement do not affect young people that way. In some contexts, it actually gets them more active in politics.

Political science already knows that context matters

The existing research shows that how people come in contact with political disagreement matters in terms of how it affects them. Among adults, face-to-face disagreement can lower rates of political participation and voting and lower levels of political interest more generally. Others find that this is not always the case and that disagreement can push people to get politically involved enough to attend meetings, work for a candidate and volunteer.

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Online exposure to political disagreement generally has no effect on adults’ online political participation — doing things such as sharing political posts or organizing online — unless, however, such exposure to disagreement is also coupled with posting comments in response.

But most, if not all, of the research on disagreement to date has studied adults, who are already more or less politically formed. We can’t necessarily generalize from adults about how disagreement affects impressionable young people.

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Further, young people spend a great deal of time online and often encounter diverse perspectives — making it important to learn specifically how online disagreement affects their political engagement. Mid-adolescence and early adulthood are crucial stages of political socialization. This period of psychological and social change for youths significantly influences political habits throughout life.

Here’s how we looked into this question

In a working paper, we examine the relationship between political disagreement and political participation among youths. We accomplish this using data from a unique survey conducted in 2011 by the Youth Participatory Politics Survey Project. The survey provides a nationally representative sample of youths ages 15 to 25 and contains more than 2,500 individual responses to a variety of questions about social and political behavior.

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We study two indicators of political participation: an index of seven forms of traditional political participation (such as working for a campaign, wearing a button and protesting), and a similar index of six forms of online political participation (such as showing support on a social networking site, sharing political news, and writing a political blog post or email).

To measure political disagreement, we look at two things in both online and face-to-face settings: reported exposure to political disagreement (i.e. observing disagreement or passive participation), and actual engagement in political disagreement (i.e. responding to those you disagree with). The data we use are cross-sectional and self-reported, so we can’t claim that one causes another, but we are able to control for whether youths in our sample are interested in politics to begin with.

Here’s what we found

Through modeling that includes our key disagreement variables, as well as standard demographic and political characteristics, here’s what we found.

First, youths who report they have encountered political disagreement face to face, and have even gotten involved in these arguments, are no more or less likely to participate traditional political ways.

Second, young people exposed to political disagreement online are 96 percent more likely to be politically involved in more of the traditional ways.

Apparently for young people, disagreement — face to face or online — does not discourage traditional political involvement the way it can for adults.

This is even more true when we look at whether young people are politically involved online. Those exposed to political disagreement — either online or face to face — are more politically active online than other young people, even after controlling for their average amount of online activity. In fact, those who have had or seen face-to-face political disagreements are also 26 percent more politically active online — while those who’ve been in, or witnessed, online political disagreements are 27 percent more politically active online.

One particularly interesting finding is that young people who argue online with those they disagree with politically are 27 percent more politically active online. Perhaps young people feel safe and comfortable grappling with challenging political ideas online, where they spend so many hours.

Maybe, for young people, those social media battles about Donald Trump’s wall and Hillary Clinton’s emails are not all bad. Maybe they’re practicing being active citizens — and getting excited about being involved in politics.

Jessica T. Feezell is an assistant professor of political science at the University of New Mexico, researching political communication and technology. Follow her on Twitter @JessicaFeezell.

Jessica L. Jones is a PhD student in political science at the University of New Mexico, researching politics at the intersection of climate change, human rights and migration.

This post is part of a series on youth political engagement organized by the Monkey Cage and CIRCLE, a national research center on youth civic education and engagement that is part of the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University.