Lessons in democracy and social media from 112 fifteen-year-olds

Sep 25, 2012


This month, our elections team in Monmouthshire Council asked me along to Chepstow Comprehensive to talk to students about how people can get involved in community life using social media. This is a post about what this group of young people told me about how they use social media.

A day of democracy in the school

Our elections team are obviously keen that Monmouthshire people vote and better understand local democracy and so a learning day was organised to get a good insight into what young people in Chepstow think about local decision-making. A recent story on how Facebook can influence election turnout caught my eye, and it’s important that as an authority we take seriously the opportunity to get involved with what’s being done and discussed online.

Pupils took part in other sessions as well as my social media workshop: an interactive session involving what services the council offer and its responsibilities, the decision making process and what are the problems in the local area that the council can affect; and a session looking at who and what is an ideal councillor (Beyonce was a popular choice and is well fit apparently).

I left my visit to the school with more conviction that ‘we’ (that is, people with an interest in making places we live better) have to talk to people in the places they already go and that people want to ask questions and get involved in community life.

Discovering the social media channels these young people use

This blog post is about what we discussed about social media and some interesting information I learned from my sample of 112 15-year olds in the school.

Clearly the sample doesn’t represent all young people in the county but it is a good snapshot and insight into how social media is used by this age-group. I thought I’d share my interpretation of the implications.

I spent half of my time explaining the kind of things we are doing as a council to get people more involved in community life, here’s the prezi I used: Local Democracy Week at Chepstow Comp! on Prezi

The other half of the workshops was about getting the lowdown on what young people do online.

My first question in the workshops was which channels they actually use:

  • Facebook: 104
  • Twitter: 56
  • Tumblr: 42
  • YouTube: 35 upload (all said they view it which actually makes it the most popular channel)
  • Form spring: 8
  • Ask.fm: 7
  • Pinterest: 1
  • Other blogs like WordPress and Posterous 0
  • Wikipedia: 0 – (102 said they view it making it third most popular – not surprising since our county has the world’s first Wikipedia Town!)
  • Google+: 0

Facebook – not everyone is there

First of all, I think it’s interesting that not everyone is on Facebook, which would have been my guess. I didn’t want to pry into the reasons those who didn’t use the channels had – being a teenager is hard enough without speaking about these things in front of all your peers.

>However, I think it’s clear that enough people actively use Facebook that it is a dominant channel. In Monmouthshire, our youth service engages with lots of particularly active communities on Facebook. I know myself as a very light user of the channel that if something’s happening I should know about, my friends who are always on there will let me know one way or the other.

A really interesting discussion we had was around young people taking action on what matters to them. A big topic for discussion was where to hang around outside school hours – young people are too young to go to pubs and bars but they want to socialise in all weathers with nice coffee, cakes and wifi. We looked at how setting up a Facebook page or group campaigning for more coffee shops could influence the way that councillors and officers shape the county.

It seems that young people have a hunch that they all want the same thing but they hadn’t all thought of how to make themselves heard as a collective, so that was really interesting.

Twitter – a great suggestion from a pupil

I thought we’d have more tweeters as I’ve noticed a huge surge in young people using Twitter locally and many of them follow the main corporate tweets as well as more topic-specific Twitter profiles like our youth service, Monmouthshire countryside team, the council Leader or whatever. The general feeling was it was being used for talking to friends and celebrities but quite a few said that they would love to see us tweeting more about fun events they could take part in and things that will help them with choosing a career.

One suggestion from a young person was brilliant – a Twitter Q&A with a cross section of people in different careers, like a carer, a teacher, a businessperson and a doctor. This would give young people a chance to quiz local people on what they like about their jobs and get tips on how to get into a chosen profession. I’ll be looking to work with our schools to do that in the new year, ace idea.

Tumblr – more popular than I’d anticipated

I’ve never used this blogging platform but I’m not completely past it and I had heard a few young people I know share and express themselves here, especially it seems if they’re a bit arty.

I think what I can learn from this is that blogger outreach is really very important – in this sample of young people, it is immensely popular.

I had a chat with some of the kids about how important it that people who work for the council comment and chat to people in their own spaces online.

Build it and they will come’ isn’t the foundation of what we’re trying to do and sometimes we need to go to other people’s places instead of waiting for them to find us.

I think this goes for YouTube, Pinterest and other social media platforms as well. It’s as important to comment, ‘Like’ and share as it is to be commented on, Liked and shared.

Wikipedia – everyone’s lurking but no participaton yet

Most said they use it for research, I’m guessing as Monmouthpedia spreads across the county to become Monmouthpediashire (yes that’s a mouthful!), more and more young people will be editing and sharing their knowledge using Wikipedia.

Ask.fm and Formspring – quizzing each other is a sport

I’ve only ever seen these channels because many people hook their questions and answers up to Twitter. Although I’m not sure how a council could get involved in this very personal, friend-to-friend interaction, it’s worth looking as hosting Q&As with young people using a platform they’re familiar with.

We have as much to learn from our young people as they have from council people so it’s an area I’ll be suggesting as an option to any of our teams who want to consult with young people locally.

Another key lesson here is that our young people are open and willing to be quizzed and they are inquisitive and social – great skills to have when getting involved in communities.

That’s it

I have no real conclusion here, its hardly a scientific study but what I got from it was a reminder I should get out more and ask our people in Monmouthshire what they’re talking about, what they’re using and how they use it. I gained a whole new bunch of clever and talented people to talk to about Monmouthshire life and I think I’ll never stop learning from our communities.

by Jean-Pierre

[Photo by Jean-Pierre ARIBAU]

1 Comment

  1. whatsthepont

    Interesting post Helen,I completely agree that we need to go where the people are if we want to engage with them. As you say, no point building it and expecting them to turn up, because the generally don’t.Doesn’t make it easy for public services tring to engage though, particularly if people keep jumping onto new platforms.One question. Did any of them mention using online games as a communication channel. For a while my kids seemed to communicate mostly through x-box 360 (FIFA & cod) and Minecraft on PC.. Much homework cribbing was done through these routes. Thanks, Chris.


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Hel Reynolds

Hel Reynolds

Author of this post

Hel is social media trainer and boss of Comms Creatives. She has been working in comms since 2005, and has been brushing up her expertise in social media for brands since the good old days of MySpace. She also draws the Comms Cartoons, and is usually attached to a mug of coffee.

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