Start ‘em young - Early civic engagement for Middle and High Schoolers with technology they relate to. | Teen Ink

Start ‘em young - Early civic engagement for Middle and High Schoolers with technology they relate to.

March 5, 2023
By anaypant BRONZE, Alamo, California
anaypant BRONZE, Alamo, California
1 article 0 photos 0 comments

In the 2022 midterms, youth (ages 18-24) turnout was the second highest in three decades.  Their votes had a major impact on the  midterm outcomes.  Young people across the country had their voices heard and were able to support causes they cared about. According to a Harvard poll , in this standout midterm around 40%  young voters indicated that they would vote.  Overall around 27% youth ballots were cast. While this data showed an upward trajectory, it is by no means enough or promises to be consistent in the next elections. 

Why do youth voters not vote ?

Historically, youth voter turnout has stayed around the 25% mark. It does not indicate that youth are averse to voting , however studies show that there are structural and logistical barriers for youth to participate. 

This article focuses on one such structural barrier -  The lack of early civic education and teaching students the importance of a vote.  

Most US public and private schools do advocate social and civic engagement in High School with Community Service being a mandatory part of the curriculum. However most students look at this as a requirement they must complete to pass High School. 

Most schools offer a student council. This is a group of elected student leaders and volunteers who work with adult advisors to manage school affairs and issues within the bylaws of the school.  A handful of interested students usually participate with most using this as another bullet point towards extracurricular activities in college applications.

Some schools may allow a moderated  Political Action Club or Political Awareness Club with guidelines and rules on discussion topics  to prevent aggression or rivalries amongst students and parents. This might prevent an individual’s participation due to limited self expression.

The USA high school curriculum requires at least 1 semester of American Government class. Topics include the constitutional framework, federalism, the three branches of government, bureaucracy, civil rights and liberties, political participation and behavior,  and policy formation.  Interested students can take Advanced Placement(AP) courses and tests to dive deeper into the subject.  However most students treat this as a course requirement for college.


The  other structural barrier is the individual themselves.  At home early civic education largely depends on the motivation of parents and children's interest in the subject.  Most teens spend little time ( <120 minutes per day in the USA) with parents due to the many engagements and distractions. 

I feel that I come from a happy family , and I spend about an hour with my parents daily, maybe two on weekends.  Our  conversation is usually about  academics , family, sports,  our pet dog, a movie or food. In my case , my dad and I share a love of history so we sometimes talk about WWII or the current political environment.

For a second generation teen like me ( there are around 7.2 million  second generation Americans), school becomes the most important and sometimes the only resource for civic education.  

Teenagers are constantly occupied (I know it first hand!)  with mainly daily activities such as schoolwork, sports, after school clubs, internships, hobbies, spending time with friends, social relationships etc.  It is also a period of emotional growth and hormonal changes with ups and downs and mood swings. On top of that there is a common denominator amongst almost all teenagers today - a smartphone.

A smartphone is  the center of a teen’s life today.  Research shows that 95% of USA teens have access to smartphones today. They may also have access to other digital devices such as desktop or laptop computers or gaming consoles. Nearly all teens use the Internet daily with about 50% saying that they use it almost constantly.  Teens use Social media apps daily , with Youtube(97%), TikTok (62%), Instagram(60%) and Snapchat(60%) being the most popular. 

This leaves little to no time for average teens to discuss the “country and world” issues and social causes.

Why is this important? and my personal story

Youth civic engagement is very important to shape a democracy that is equitable and just for everyone.  Engaging and empowering civic education in school from the early years can change the landscape of youth voters.

Before the spring of 2022, just as an average teenager, I was not particularly aware or motivated to participate in social and civic engagement . I was specifically interested in, yes my smartphone, video games, robotics and programming games and apps which occupied most of my free time. 

My school offers “March Term” which is a 2-week mini class providing immersive experiences . 

This term was specifically focused on how technology can be used to support social justice movements, especially with the Black Lives Matter (BLM)  protests happening at the time.

This program motivated me and two other friends to host a podcast at school - Sociomatic. This is a podcast on Tech and Social Justice where we talk to a variety of different guests about a multitude of topics that include systemic racism, surveillance, social justice issues at our school, affirmative action, and more.

This was the start of my interest in social issues which then led to me signing up for the “American Politics” class being offered in Junior Year. 

Attending this class and engaging with my teacher was one of the best experiences and learning I have had so far.  I got deeper into the subject as my teacher offered us various  experiences to keep us engaged.  

Through this class, my teacher gave us forums to hear from and interact with our elected representatives such as Rep. Mike Thomspon (CA-4),  Monica Tranel(MT-02 runner up)  and authors such as Mick Rappaport,  who have written extensively on these subjects.  We had lively discussions in class  and homework assignments that did not feel like regular homework. 

We spoke about current events such as the Nov 2022 midterms, and the importance of student poll workers which inspired me to sign up at my local polling station. I blogged about my experience and learnings here. 

During this time, I combined my love of technology and civic engagement , by building a platform called “Qrated” to try and engage students through what they use most of the time - social media apps.

Qrated provides easy to install and use, AI powered news apps (iOS and Android) to youth where they can quickly read smart summaries of important issues in their interested categories.  They can comment/vote on them and engage in dialog with their peers. The goal is that they become aware of important issues and add their voice to the discussion.

In the backend , the anonymized aggregated analytics are processed with Machine Learning Libraries to create trends and insights. These insights are then shared with elected leaders. 

See Qrated analytics here -

Thus, Qrated allows youth to become aware and hopefully be motivated to vote, while  their voices reach our elected leaders in the community. 



What can schools do?

Schools certainly have the most important part to play. They can:

-Start civics education early in middle or even elementary school 
-Encourage students to participate as volunteers in polling stations 
-Expose students to experts,  community leaders 
-Allow students to organize and run programs such as podcasts, talks, or other creative ways 
-Make student council activities engaging and fun
-Recognize students who participate in Civic engagement programs

What can communities (Non Profits, Community Leaders) do? 

-Community leaders can create programs /participate with local schools
-Recognize students who participate in Civic engagement programs
-Nonprofits e.g. Campus Votes  should expand their college programs to create  school specific programs as well.
-Support and encourage technology platforms such as Qrated, which youth are likely to use more 

How can Technology be leveraged? 

Youth appetite for internet and social media use clearly indicates that technology will play a major factor on how the future of our nation gets shaped.  Platforms like Qrated can be a game changer for how our elected leaders think and how they can be more in tune with the youth of the nation. 

Technology also can be dangerous. It is critical that relevant, correct, unbiased  and true information is provided via any platform. Therefore technology with education at school and home should go hand in hand. 


Challenges & Next steps

While I had a good plan with Qrated, I did face  some challenges as I started to campaign for Qrated adoption amongst my peers.  I launched Qrated in Fall 2022. So far I have only reached ~20 subscribers and ~10 daily active users. 

The biggest challenge for me has been getting my peers interested - there are many competing apps which are more popular. At this point the app is also very basic as it is mostly developed by me. 

For other readers who may think of implementing a technology idea, it is key to get sponsorship via a non-profit or company who can provide funds and potentially a team one can work with for not only development but also campaigning and marketing. 

On February 1st, 2023, I got an opportunity to speak and present Qrated to the Deputy District Director, Office of Assemblymember Rebecca Bauer-Kahan (CA). 

I gave a demo and answered questions related to Qrated.  The Director appreciated my efforts and provided great feedback and suggestions for improving the app.  She is also going to provide contacts that can help me take Qrated to the next level. 

I am speaking to nonprofits around the Bay area to gauge interest.  Qrated code is open source so all readers and coders  are invited to contribute and use it.


I would like to conclude with a quote from Mahatma Gandhi below that made me think.

“We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do”

Qrated is my first effort to be that change.











The author's comments:

Civic engagement is essential to shape a democracy that is equitable and just for everyone.  However in the USA,  youth participation has historically been low.  There are structural barriers for youth participation.  One such structural barrier is lack of early civic education and teaching students the importance of a vote.  

Another is  the individual themselves.  An average teenager (ages 13-17) has several things going on to preoccupy them such as school & extra-curricular activities, physical and emotional changes, social relationships, and more.  Whatever spare time a teenager may have is spent on the smartphone, primarily on social media apps such as YouTube, Tiktok, Instagram and Snapchat.

In this article, I discuss the problem of lack of civic engagement in today’s youth generation  and potential solutions , using my personal experiences.

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