Research has found evidence of a “referendum effect” on young voters, with more teenagers interested in politics as a result of last year’s vote on Scottish independence.
The study, by academics at Robert Gordon University (RGU) in Aberdeen, found the effect was “unevenly distributed” and there was a drop-off in levels of interest as 16 and 17-year-olds were unable to vote in this year’s general election.
The referendum was the first time 16 and 17-year-olds across Scotland had been allowed to vote, with an estimated 75% of the age group taking part in the ballot.
Since then, changes have been made to allow those aged 16 and above to participate in Scottish elections.
The New Radicals: Digital Political Engagement in Post-Referendum Scotland study found “evidence of a ‘referendum effect’ clearly emerging from within our survey and interview data”.
Its final report stated: “People who had not been interested in politics before the referendum became interested during the referendum.”
Dr Peter McLaverty, a reader in public policy at the university and the principal investigator for work, said: “This study has allowed us to investigate more fully the claims that the referendum led to a generation of first-time voters becoming engaged with politics and that social media plays a key role in young people’s political engagement.
“We found clear evidence that the referendum led to widespread engagement among young people who previously had no interest in politics and that this translated into increased political activity – including party membership – after the referendum. In some cases, this translated directly into sustained engagement or activism around the 2015 general election.
“However, the effects were unevenly distributed, with many 16 and 17-year-olds reporting a drop-off in interest due to being unable to vote.
“We also found that although Twitter offers people the opportunity to engage with politics and politicians in a very direct way, there is a very strong tendency to simply retweet other people’s views rather than engage in a genuine dialogue.
“It will be very interesting to see what levels of political engagement and activity are like in the lead-up to the 2016 Scottish Parliament election when 16 and 17-year-olds will be eligible to vote, as well as if and how politicians and campaign groups seek to engage with these first-time voters.”
Political activity by young people changed in the aftermath of the referendum, with people switching from being involved in campaign groups to being involved in political parties.
“Our survey and interview data suggests that the campaign groups which served as the predominant vehicle for engagement during the campaign were largely sidelined in favour of political parties afterwards,” the research found.
The report said that while there had been “large increases in party membership” following September 18, this has “not necessarily translated into such widespread lasting engagement”.
It also found that young people’s interest in politics during the referendum “occurred despite limited efforts by political elites to appeal to first-time voters”.