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On the Web, Gen-Y and civic duty click

A new study finds that young people are getting more politically involved by logging on.

March 23, 2004|Erin Ailworth | Times Staff Writer

Saying Generation Y uses the Internet is like pointing out that baby boomers use the telephone. But behind the instant-messaging, illegal downloading and porn-sneaking, techno-savvy tweens, teens and twentysomethings are actually doing something with their computers: participating.

A study released today by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Social Media at American University examines the burgeoning presence of civically active young people on the Internet. The two-year study, meant to be a snapshot rather than a quantitative analysis, looked at 300 websites that are wholly or partly geared toward encouraging Generation Y -- anyone born in or after 1979 -- to vote, volunteer, protest and participate in their communities. The most visible sign of this upsurge, at least in political participation, has been Howard Dean's online presidential campaign and such sites as MoveOn.org, an online issues advocacy group, said Kathryn Montgomery, the principle author of the study.

Researchers, she said, were surprised at the amount of civic sites they discovered for Generation Y, especially the number created by the young people themselves. The sites they studied promote civic involvement in 10 areas, including philanthropy and volunteering, global and local activism, and tolerance and youth development. One such site is www.YouthOutlook.org, an online journal in which kids can post their views on everything from body issues to politics and violence. Another site, Idealist.org, is a searchable database of volunteer opportunities, with a special section for kids and teens.

"Part of what they are doing online is expressing, communicating and, especially with blogs, ... creating whole new mediums, whole new vehicles for getting their voices out," Montgomery said. She added that she was not sure whether their involvement had staying power. She worries that both the large commercial interests looking to cash in on the teen demographic and the fragmented nature of the online landscape could kill this fledgling activity before it takes hold. But the preservation effort has to come from kids as well as adults -- a difficult goal, Montgomery said, because older generations are so focused on limiting access to unsavory parts of the Internet. She said her generation has almost completely overlooked the fact that most kids have already been there, done that and have moved on to the next online trend.

Members of Generation Y say the Internet is a library, an entertainment device and a communicator. "I can't really imagine how we used to get around without the Internet," said Theo Milonopoulos, 17. "I've grown up with it constantly being there."

When they were 11, Theo, a junior at Campbell Hall High School in North Hollywood, and his twin brother, Niko, began a nonprofit organization called Kidz Voice-LA. The group lobbies for gun control in the city. This generation has "grown up watching kids go into their high school, shoot their classmates, their teachers and then themselves," Theo said. When they began the group, the boys used the Internet to research gun control policies and gather information on whom to contact. They are designing a website to further the reach of their organization.

"Older generations need to recognize that it's not the same era that they lived in," Theo said, adding that this generation doesn't stand outside markets with petitions; it types an e-mail, loads an address book and clicks the send button. The Internet "allows for you to personalize the issue that you want to advocate for or against," he added. "It allows you to establish your connections and passions about that issue before going out and getting directly involved."

Generation Y is "absolutely using the Internet to seek information and in some cases make up their minds," said David "Beno" Benveniste, who started StreetWise Concepts and Culture, a company that uses the Internet to promote bands, new films, video games and anything else considered hip by teens. "The send button doesn't discriminate between a 40-year-old and a 20-year-old," said Benveniste, who also manages the band System of a Down.

Zack Anderson, 17, a junior at Beverly High School, said he did not see his generation rallying en masse around any issue in the near future. "I don't take big issue with the Iraq war, violence and stuff," Zack said. "I do keep up on the news and everything, but I am not going to go out and protest. It just doesn't affect me to that level." But, he said, he does care about issues within his immediate realm. At the end of last year, he created the Beverly Underground, an online alternative to what he calls Beverly High's official "pro-school" newspaper, Highlights.

The publication is "completely online because it gives us a lot of freedom," he said. "The ease of accessing information is just incredible [as well as] being able to reach so many people so easily."

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