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Young People Created Media to Uplift their Voices in 2020

Black and Latino youth were especially active in creating and sharing content on social platforms about the 2020 election or issues they care about.

Social media can be a critical space for young people’s civic development. It provides a range of avenues for media creation and consumption, creating opportunities for diverse youth to engage with social and political issues. Particularly in the context of the social isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of the organizing and political discourse that took place during the 2020 election cycle happened in online spaces, and many young people identified social media as a significant source of information about the 2020 election.

In addition to being an important space for information sharing, youth media creation on social networks and other digital platforms can be a critical form of civic engagement. Media creation can help young people feel informed, empowered, and represented. By studying young people’s media creation habits, we seek to improve understanding of how young people use online spaces for civic engagement, with the goal of strengthening the accessibility of information and media creation opportunities (and the benefits) to more youth whose voices have been marginalized.

Based on our analysis of the CIRCLE post-election survey of young people (ages 18-29), we find:

  • Nearly half (45%) of young people have engaged in one of three forms of media creation about social and political issues: creating content for submission, sharing their own experience, or creating visual media. 
  • Compared to their white and Asian peers, Black and Latino youth have higher rates of media creation and engagement 

Youth Are Active and Creative Online

Young people engage with social and political issues in a variety of different ways: 32% report sharing their own experience to raise awareness; 25% have submitted content they created to a website, media outlet, or other social media account; and 21% have created visual media to raise awareness about an issue. Nearly half (45%) of young people created media in one of these forms in the thirty days before responding to the question, and 10% did all three, suggesting that the wide range of approaches to media creation allows different youth to lean into their skill sets and interests. In addition, 23% of young people indicated that they share others’ posts about political and social issues often or fairly often, while 16% said they commented on other’s posts at the same frequency. That difference may suggest that social media platforms are facilitating information-sharing more than civic dialogue, which has broader implications for civic engagement in these online spaces.

Even among youth (ages 18-29), there were some differences by age in how often people participate in certain types of civic engagement on social media. The youngest eligible voters (18-19 years old)  were 10 percentage points more likely to have created and shared an image, GIF, or video to bring awareness to a social or political issue that they care about. These differences could be related to the social media platforms that young people of different ages use. In our survey, youth ages 20-29 were more likely to cite YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter as platforms where they heard or saw information about the 2020 election. Meanwhile, youth ages 18-19 were most likely to cite YouTube, Instagram, Tiktok, and Snapchat.

Notably, platforms like TikTok and Snapchat more commonly used by the younger group are largely centered on the creation of images and videos. Also, nearly all of them include in-app editing tools that may remove barriers to access to media creation. By contrast, slightly older young people are more likely to use Twitter and Facebook than other platforms. Twitter and Facebook accommodate media creation but are more centered around information-sharing, like sharing links to news stories. 

The rise of TikTok as a source of political media creation and engagement among youth is especially notable. Between our pre-election survey in May/June and the post-election survey in November/December, there was an overall decrease in young people saying that they had recently heard about the 2020 election in most social media platforms. (Which might be expected since the latter survey was fielded after Election Day.) The only exception was TikTok: 6 percentage points more youth saw information about the election on TikTok in November/December than in the spring. Among  18- and 19-year-olds, the increase was 11 percentage points. Though this does mirror the significant growth in overall usership that TikTok saw in 2020, it also suggests the growing dominance of TikTok in youth media engagement and creation, particularly among the youngest eligible voters.

Black and Latino Youth More Likely to Create Media

Black and Latino youth reported significantly more media creation and engagement with others’ social posts than white and Asian youth. Over half of Black youth (56%) and Latino youth (57%) reported engaging in at least one of the three types of online media creation we asked about in the survey. This was significantly higher than among white youth (40%) and Asian youth (38%).

Across all youth, these digital civic engagement behaviors changed only marginally (by no more than 3 percentage points) between the pre-election survey in May/June 2020 and the post-election survey. However, for the subgroups of youth of color for which we have data available, we saw some increase in their media creation. Asian youth reported increases across all three types of media creation—though the differences were within the margin of error. Black youth had a 10 percentage point increase in this area, as well as a 9 point increase in submitting content they created to established digital platforms.

Social media and online media creation are excellent tools for diverse groups of young people to engage in democracy. And the fact that the youngest eligible voters use social media more for civic engagement highlights the importance of supporting teens and children in developing civically minded online practices. At the same time, we must keep in mind that these opportunities are not equally accessible to all young people. Certain groups, such as some rural youth, continue to lack equal access to this sort of civic participation due to more limited broadband internet access and other challenges. 

Educators, people working in media, and other adult stakeholders should embrace young people’s civic expressions through media creation as valuable voices in our democracy, and work to implement media creation and media literacy into school curriculums. These strategies can contribute to the important work of Growing Voters by supporting digital civic behaviors even before young people are eligible to vote. And, as our data also shows, youth of color are particularly interested and engaged in media creation. Continuing to support and uplift their voices can help to increase representation of otherwise underrepresented voices in our democracy.


Author: Ruby Belle Booth