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Politics, young people and the Internet

By Heejin Lee and Gil-Soo Han - posted Tuesday, 17 January 2006

We often hear that computers and the Internet make young people less interested in politics, or less participative in social affairs at large. It seems that this matches our everyday observations. When back home, children go straight to their rooms, turn on the computer and to chat and play games.

These observations can be theoretically supported by Robert Putnam who blamed TV as the main culprit of the marked decline in civic engagement in America. Civic participation - an essential part of the liveliness and soundness of the American society - or social capital in his words, "features of social organisation such as networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate co-ordination and co-operation for mutual benefit" is decreased due to high engagement with TV. It is not difficult to replace TV with the Internet. However, have you peeked over your childrens' shoulders to see what they do?

Some recent studies show that decreased social participation due to the Internet may not always be the case. Sonia Livingstone, a sociologist at London School of Economics, argues that young people are using the Internet for a wide range of activities that could be considered "participation". She suggests "political" be broadly defined to include civic and social activities for environment, animal rights and so on. Then we can see the Internet as a means of increasing young people's participation.


The Internet facilitates peer-to-peer connection at a low cost - not only financially but also cognitively - by providing the information needed to participate in society. While maintaining this peer-to-peer connection, young people find it necessary to go beyond the content provided for them by others and to seek out, select and judge, even to create content for themselves as part of a community of actors. This broader approach stimulates interest that may lead to a more traditional political agenda.

Some examples are seen in South Korea, the "Internet-worked" society, where more than 70 per cent of households are connected to broadband at the speed of no less than 2 Mbps. Broadband Internet is widely and deeply embedded in ordinary people's life in Korea: it is a taken-for-granted necessity. It is very much part of daily lives, so much so that the Internet had a decisive impact on the result of the presidential election in 2002.

Here are two examples where teenagers raise their voice collectively in the cause of human rights, on the one hand, and to influence an education policy which will affect quality of life in their high school years.

The first is called the "no cut campaign". In Korean secondary schools, strict restrictions are in place on students' hair style, mainly length. When you are spotted with long hair, the punishment may not be severe, but it is embarrassing. Students call it "a motorway is open" because a hair cutting machine is applied ruthlessly to make a line, or patch, of short hair through the long hair. Apart from being ugly, it is a humiliating experience.

A group of students raised the issue from a human rights perspective on a community site in May 2000. The campaign grew both in the cyber world where 1.6 million signed on for the campaign in just three months - and on the street where they successfully organised demonstrations.

In October in the same year, the ministry of education announced a recommendation which advised secondary schools to take a flexible approach on the matter. Until recently, however, the humiliating practices have continued. When a renewed campaign was organised in 2005, the education minister met some representative students. Although there was no tangible outcome from this meeting, it was a surprise, and an achievement for the students who participated in the campaign that the ministry responded.


The second example is the demonstrations against the new policy for university entrance exams. In April 2005 the  education ministry announced a new entrance policy which will be in effect for entry in 2008 and which therefore affects current Year 10 students.

The major change is the increased weighting of school grades across all subjects learned throughout students' high school years, compared to the previous practice of giving higher weighting to school grades in the final year and the results of the national examination (similar to VCE or HSC in Australia).

In a society like Korea going to a university, or more accurately speaking, going to a reputable or the "best" university is a life goal of every student. The new policy means they have to work madly hard every single day of the three high school years because every activity is assessed and, in theory, becomes part of the university entrance grade. In protest to the new policy some Year 10 students organised a candlelight demonstration through online communities and SMS messages, and this demonstration attracted much attention from the media and the general public.

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About the Authors

Dr Heejin Lee is a senior lecturer in the Department of Information Systems at the University of Melbourne.

Gil-Soo Han is the Associate Professor & Head of Arts, Deputy Head, School of Arts and Sciences at Monash University Malaysia.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Photo of Heejin LeeHeejin LeePhoto of Gil-Soo HanGil-Soo Han
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