As teens enter the gun policy debate, recent polling suggests that many young people are preparing to make a political impact
By Carolyn Davis
What ultimately drives young people to take a political stand? According to recent data from an MTV/PRRI survey of young people ages 15–24, we can get a sense of what doesn’t. Young people report that feeling uninformed about an issue is by far the most discouraging factor when it comes to getting involved. But for a generation raised with regular active shooter drills and the near-weekly experience of hearing about actual shootings at some school in the country, the issue of gun violence in school is far from abstract.
At Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, many students touched by the mass shooting that left 17 dead and at least 14 wounded have mobilized to call for changes to gun policy on a scale seen as unprecedented by many who have covered the aftermath of these tragedies for years. Social media has proven to be a critical tool both in helping to illustrate the impact of this reality for those who did not come of age post-Columbine, and in helping students organize for change. During the massacre itself, live video and images posted from inside the school coalesced into a broad, literal and figurative cry for help from students trapped inside. In the wake of the shootings, Parkland youth activists such as Emma González, Jaclyn Corin, David Hogg, and Cameron Kasky have adeptly deployed social media as a tool for their activism and an effective means of controlling their own narratives.
Many of today’s young people have spent many of their formative years posting online about issues that matter to them. These conversations are translating into broader political activism for many young Americans (ages 15–24), especially online and among young women. Thirty-seven percent of young women and 30 percent of young men have volunteered for a group or cause they care about in the last year. Almost half (48 percent) of young women say they have signed an online petition, as have 39 percent of young men.
Young people undeniably are paying attention to the current political climate. More than three-quarters (77 percent) of young people say the country is very divided by politics. Even so, they are hopeful and empowered. Fifty-nine percent of young people say that America’s best days are ahead of us.
While pundits often criticize millennials and those coming of age behind them as self-absorbed, growing evidence suggests that this is far from the case. On issues such as gun control and the Movement for Black Lives, this generation of emerging adults may continue the legacy of previous youth-led movements, such as the anti-war and civil rights movements.
It remains to be seen whether the growing #NeverAgain movement will find success in gun policy reform. Still, current lawmakers and future political candidates would be wise to consider how the synergy between a passion for change and a coming of age in the digital era is catalyzing a new moment in youth activism. Today’s young student activists may not be able to vote in the 2018 midterm elections, but many of them will be eligible in 2020, when the stakes will be even higher.
Carolyn Davis is the Director of Strategic Engagement at PRRI. Follow her on Twitter at @carojdavis.