There is a great deal of controversy concerning the effects of mass communication on political socialization, in terms of both its size and direction. Political socialization can be understood as the processes through which democratic societies instill the proper norms among their members to maintain social institutions and practices. Most research on this topic focuses on how individuals engage in political development and learn basic civic skills, with family, schooling, peer groups, and media serving as the major factors involved in this dynamic. Early studies focused on adolescence as a critical period for political socialization, though this has given way to lifelong learning models, attention to generational differences, and consideration of civic modes of participation alongside the political (Sears & Levy 2003; Sapiro 2004).
Media consumption and social networks are increasingly central to models of political socialization that extend beyond adolescence to life stages when parental and educational influence is comparatively reduced. The relationships between these variables are not always viewed as complementary, with electronic media often considered the source of declining rates of social interaction. Some scholars even argue that television viewing and Internet use erode engagement in public life and demobilize citizens (Putnam 2000). Young people, as heavy users of such media, are thought to experience these negative influences to a disproportionate degree, as a consequence of the displacement of time from social interaction, the promotion of antisocial perceptions, and the generation of cynicism toward politics and public affairs.
However, these assessments of the adverse influence of television on civic and political participation have been called into question by research revealing little evidence of time displacement effects and demonstrating the benefits of news, documentary, and dramatic television viewing on civic attitudes and behaviors. Recent work has also observed that online news consumption and social messaging have positive effects on engagement in public life, providing some evidence of the pro-civic and pro-democratic potential of digital media for younger generations (Eveland et al. 1999; Shah et al. 2001).
The Decline In Youth Participation
Evidence shows that the gap in civic engagement between young and older adults has grown in recent years in most western democracies. For example, the gap in voter turnout between 18-to-24-year-olds and older adults has grown over the last two decades. Young people have less political knowledge and pay less attention to the news than their parents did at their age. They are less trusting of their fellow citizens, and even when they do vote, their action is not as likely to be accompanied by other civic actions. By and large, young people today are comparatively disengaged from and uninformed about politics, and less active in civic life than the rising rate of educational attainment among their generational cohort would predict.
Although conventional newspaper reading is viewed as the one positive exception to the negative effects of the media on participation and democratic legitimacy, traditional print media have seen their youth audience, and thus their influence, displaced by the rise of television during the latter half of the twentieth century and the ascendance of digital media in the last decade. Among these, television use has become a prime suspect when scholars began searching for causes of the four-decade decline in civic participation (Putnam 2000). Indeed, heavy television viewing as measured by hours of use is associated with lower political activity among both adolescents and younger adults, seemingly confirming this suspicion.
This finding should be interpreted tentatively. First, it only holds for formal political activity and discussion, but not for less formal civic activities and learning. Second, time displacement may not be the key mechanism. A focus on time spent with television may mask important differences in the effects of various forms of television content. Watching situation comedies appears to deter civic action, while news and documentary viewing tends to show positive effects. This focus on television has also led many in the academic community to ignore the positive effects of the print media, such as newspapers and news magazines. Indeed, the decade’s long decline in participation is more likely a direct result of the erosion of print news readership rather than an effect of the rise of television. The Internet, especially when used as a source of public affairs information and a sphere for political expression, shows signs of salutary effects rivaling TV and newspapers (Shah et al. 2005).
Communication And Socialization
As a result of these changes, traditional models of political socialization have been radically altered over the last 40 years to account for the shifting effects of communication factors. The early focus on political outcomes came at the expense of ignoring processes that are vital to democracy. The idea of an active audience has important implications for political socialization research. As mentioned earlier, time-spent media measures are insensitive to the differing effects of specific types of content. Moreover, television viewers often combine watching with other activities. Today’s youth typically spend seven hours a day using media, most of which involves using two or more media simultaneously (Roberts 2000). It is therefore important to obtain self-reported information about the person’s consumption of particular types of media content and the context of this consumption.
To more fully understand media effects, communication research has gone beyond simply questions of how much an individual uses various media to consider the questions of how content is consumed, and beyond what media are used to examine why certain media are selected. The how question is answered by focusing on exposure and attention to various types of media content and by attending to potentially differential effects across a range of media. For example, among televised entertainment media, social drama viewing has been linked to civic engagement, whereas reality show viewing has been linked with civic disengagement. The why question is addressed by examining the gratifications sought from content and their association with patterns of media consumption. For example, informational motivations increase attention to hard news and facilitate learning, whereas seeking escape or diversion motivations lessens attention and learning from news.
Further, the socializing influences of the mass media on youth are often complemented and reinforced by communication with parents and peers. How parents communicate with their adolescent children has been found to be particularly important to civic socialization (Chaffee et al. 1973). In particular, children who are encouraged to freely express their ideas even if they are at odds with those of their parents tend to be more politically engaged, whereas those who are raised in communication contexts where conformity is emphasized are less so. In a similar vein, political discussion issues with family, friends, co-workers, and others in one’s social network have been found to play a key role in the development of civic identity (Huckfeldt & Sprague 1995). These factors have been found to influence adolescent and early adult socialization, complementing and channeling the effects of media on civic outcomes.
Adolescent Socialization Through Media
To understand the effect of media use and political talk on adolescent socialization, we must consider both the level of activity and strength of effect. Adolescent news consumption from traditional print and broadcast media is small in comparison to their consumption of entertainment content in the form of television programs, films, and video games. Still, there is a significant gain in news consumption, political talk with peers, and civic engagement from early to late adolescence. Family communication patterns also change during the adolescent years, with parents reducing demands for conformity and instead favoring greater openness to the expression of controversial positions. These changes contribute to adolescent political learning and activity.
Effects on Adolescents
Newspaper hard news reading has the strongest media effect on indicators of youth socialization, after demographic and other controls, in conveying knowledge, stimulating discussion, and shaping attitudes among adolescents. The strength of its effects remains as strong in the late 1990s as it was in the early 1970s (Chaffee et al. 1973). Attentive television news viewing has positive though weaker impact, while television entertainment viewing has both positive and negative effects. Mental elaboration or “reflection” – reflecting on issues seen in the news and connecting them with existing beliefs – has a strong effect on engagement beyond exposure to the news. Indeed, reflection and issue discussion are seen as both conduits and consequences of news consumption. That is, news consumption encourages these outcomes, but also has its effects on participation channeled through these internal and external forms of deliberation (McLeod 2000; Yoon et al. 2005).
Recent studies counter early speculation that the effect of adolescent Internet use, overall, on civic activism is negative. Although “time-spent-online” measures have been negatively related to psychological well-being, social trust, and real-world ties, recent research focused on adolescents finds positive linkages between certain forms of use and civic engagement. Research on young adults, which focuses on online news consumption, political messaging over email, and other online communication tools, suggests even more optimistic outcomes for adolescents.
Young Adult Socialization Through Media
Early adulthood is a period of rapid identity change. The social support provided by parents, school, and church is removed and new civic allegiances and identities must be formed. Young adults tend to have high rates of residential mobility, typically anticipating a move within the next five years. For this reason, they are less likely to feel a strong sense of belonging to their new social context, especially if they are no longer in the same community in which they attended high school. There are also substantial life-course differences between the college-bound, trade-school students, and those who directly enter the workforce or armed services. Nonetheless, social interactions with friends and co-workers play a critical role in all young adults’ lives, including the development of their civic identity. For many young adults, the media also take on a larger role as a means of connecting socially with others and for maintaining contact with others through email and social networking.
Although younger adults are generally less active than older adults, the extent of difference varies across indices of civic engagement. Differences are largest for voting, political/public affairs interest, and knowledge. More moderate differences are shown for trust in people and efficacy. Volunteering and other forms of civic participation are more similar for younger and older adults. Newspaper reading remains low for those under age 40. Television news viewing is similarly skewed, though young adults approach older adult levels by the mid-thirties (McLeod 2000). Prior to the rise of the Internet, news reached young adults mainly through television, with young people consuming at lower rates than older citizens during election campaign periods. Internet use, writ large, displays an opposite pattern. Younger adults are the heaviest users, with amount of use declining across increasingly older adults. For example, more than 40 percent of young adults read a political story from the Internet in the 2000 US election campaign – almost double the proportion for those 50 and older. That percentage rose dramatically for both groups by 2004, though the gap remained in place (Yoon et al. 2005).
Effects On Young Adults
Albeit in decline, newspaper reading, which has the strongest impact on learning and participation for adults generally, is among the strongest positive influences on civic engagement among young adults (Sotirovic & McLeod 2001). Still, it is unlikely that conventional newspaper reading is a way to spur young adult activism, due to its low use. The Internet, because of its very heavy use among younger adults, may provide a more potent opportunity. Internet use, measured in crude hours of use per day, was found to have a positive influence on knowledge, interest, volunteering, and civic participation on American adults aged 18–22. Internet effects for the youngest adults tend to be stronger than for adults over 35 years old. Internet use for search and exchange of information was most strongly related to trust both in people and in civic participation among the youngest adult cohorts (Shah et al. 2001).
Prospects For Socialization Through The Media
The prospects for civic renewal and future civic socialization through the media clearly deserve more attention. As noted above, newspaper reading among adolescents has dropped markedly over the last three decades, particularly in the United States. Consumption of television news has also dropped, leading some to suggest that young people are no longer exposed to or attentive to public affairs content. With the rise of the Internet, patterns of news consumption are shifting, especially among adolescents, with some recent studies suggesting that young people are mainly encountering conventional hard news content through online channels such as customized home pages, blogs, and news indices. Thus, use of the Internet by the most recent cohorts may partly offset the loss in conventional news consumption via newspapers and television. Notably, adolescent access to computers, the Internet, and broadband connections in schools and at home has grown rapidly.
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