The state of youth civic engagement and its impacts on social cohesion and mental health

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About the project

This project explores the impacts and implications of youth civic engagement and leadership development and their potential to foster social cohesion, improve mental health and decrease loneliness. During the COVID-19 pandemic, youth mental health challenges reached an all-time high and the negative impacts were felt even more strongly among low-income, marginalized and racialized youth. At the same time, youth reported lower levels of political and community involvement.

These developments highlight the urgent need to improve the civic engagement of young people as the shapers of Canada’s economic and political future. At a critical point in their personal development, youth’s ability to grow and lead in strong and resilient communities has long-lasting effects into adulthood. Through a scoping review of academic and grey literature that identified 221 relevant sources, the project aims to:

  • provide an overview of the current state of knowledge on youth civic engagement and its impacts on social cohesion, community building, loneliness and mental health, including identifying strengths and gaps in the literature;
  • better understand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on youth mental health and explore how civic engagement evolved digitally during the pandemic; and
  • identify implications for policies and mobilize best practices to support community and educational civic engagement initiatives in addressing the needs of youth to effectively expand civic and leadership development.

Key findings

  • Youth civic engagement—defined as actions that improve civic knowledge or individuals’ capacity for action within their communities to enact political or civic change—is positively associated with four key outcomes:
    1. Physical and mental health: civic engagement is linked to fewer depressive symptoms and lower health risks, as well as greater perceived sense of control, subjective well-being and positive affect.
    2. Socio-economic status and education: civic engagement is associated with more years of education, higher personal earnings and greater cognitive skills.
    3. Social well-being and cohesion: civic engagement helps create stronger bonds between community members, increasing a sense of community and civic responsibility as well as promoting prosocial behaviours.
    4. Life and personal skills: civically engaged youth are more likely to define themselves by their personal values and goals, and have greater interpersonal and communication skills.
  • Despite the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbating mental health challenges and loneliness for youth in Canada, civic engagement was found to be an effective mitigator of the pandemic’s negative impacts on mental health. Youth who were civically and politically engaged reported higher levels of well-being and hope for the future during the pandemic, despite the fact that they reported being just as negatively impacted as those who were not engaged and reported lower mental health.
  • Access to civic engagement and volunteer opportunities and the ways in which youth engage civically are impacted by socio-economic factors including income, race and Indigeneity. Studies also show that low-income and minority youth show lower levels of civic engagement overall, but racialized youth are comparably engaged in issues that matter most to them—such as community violence, prejudice and inequality—and often engage through social movements, resistance and organizing.
  • Digital spaces and social media platforms are increasingly becoming important tools and avenues that promote civic engagement of young people, presenting both opportunities to expand equitable access and engagement in civic initiatives and risks associated with the spread of online disinformation and hate.
  • Addressing youth mental health challenges should focus not just on reactive responses but on upstream solutions, such as civic engagement initiatives that enhance social belonging and empower youth. Youth-led civic engagement initiatives where youth feel empowered, have the opportunity to develop leadership skills and work collaboratively are often the most impactful and effective civic engagement initiatives.

Policy implications

  • Canada lacks the coherent infrastructure to effectively expand civic engagement and leadership development opportunities for youth, which requires a well-coordinated ecosystem that includes both advancing civic education in the public education system as well as complementary programming through civil society organizations.
  • To promote belonging and reduce loneliness, effective civic engagement program delivery for young people in Canada should provide opportunities for youth to work together, develop new skills and understandings and feel empowered to make positive change. Empowering young people, particularly marginalized youth, also requires that they are included as active participants in the design and implementation of civic engagement policies and initiatives at all levels of government and public agencies.
  • Online platforms are now a critical component of civic engagement for young people, and efforts should be taken to ensure youth feel safe and empowered while engaging on these platforms, including reducing harmful online content and expanding access to trustworthy media and digital and media literacy skills.
  • Civic engagement initiatives should alleviate barriers for marginalized and vulnerable youth by reducing financial barriers, creating safe spaces for youth to grow confidently, understanding the unique realities of youth facing discrimination and closing gaps in digital access.

Further information

Read the full report

Contact the researchers

Nour Abdelaal, policy analyst, Leadership Lab, Toronto Metropolitan University:

Karim Bardeesy, executive director, Leadership Lab, Toronto Metropolitan University:

The views expressed in this evidence brief are those of the authors and not those of SSHRC, Employment and Social Development Canada or the Government of Canada.

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