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Waning support for democracy linked to social isolation – think tank

·3-min read

Tech companies should put time limits on social media use to help combat declining support for democracy among young people, a think tank has said.

Centre-right think tank Onward also called for the creation of a national civic service scheme to make it easier for young people to build connections.

In a report published on Thursday, Onward found a quarter of those aged 18-34 thought democracy was a bad way of running the country, while 61% said rule by an authoritarian “strongman” would be good and almost half said the same about military rule.

Support for military rule or authoritarian leaders among young people has risen over the last two decades, with the proportion of those saying a strongman leader would be good roughly doubling since 1999, according to the research.

Meanwhile, support for non-democratic government remained much lower among older people following a brief spike in 2019.

The research is based on a survey by JL Partners of 8,004 people across the UK, including 2,350 aged 18 to 34.

Summer weather Aug 7th 2022
The Houses of Parliament. Young people are more likely to back an authoritarian leader than older voters. (Aaron Chown/PA)

Onward argued waning support for democracy was linked to rising levels of social atomisation, or disconnection, among young people, with those aged 18-34 much more likely to say they felt lonely or had few close friends than older age groups.

Those with few friends were also more likely to say they supported non-democratic government with Onward saying narrow social networks, the stresses of work, overprotective parenting and use of social media “appear to be contributing to a destructive form of disconnection among younger generations that is undermining support for democracy and storing up social problems for the future”.

To counter the growing support for authoritarianism, Onward suggested establishing a “national civic service” along the lines of AmeriCorps in the US or the Service Civique in France, signing young people up for civic missions such as teaching disadvantaged children or environmental action.

The think tank also called for employment law to be changed to protect time off so people could volunteer for organisations such as St John’s Ambulance or military cadets, and developing a national network of “play clubs” to allow children to play unsupervised and develop their interpersonal skills.

Usage limits on social media would also help deal with “problem users”. The report found young men who spent more than four hours a day on social media were more likely to support military rule.

But Onward added it was “problem behaviours” such as accessing radical content on social media that were more strongly linked with support for non-democratic government than just the amount of time spent online.

Former Conservative leadership candidate Penny Mordaunt backed Onward’s recommendations, saying: “Both democracy and capitalism are like Tinkerbell’s light, if you stop believing in them they die.”

She added: “The lack of support for democracy amongst young people is both concerning and unsurprising. Order something on Amazon it arrives in hours. Solving a problem with legislation take years.

“We have to modernise both the mandate and its management. Part of this is about connecting people and empowering them. This report is right to point to the links between social connectivity and political opportunity.”

Former deputy prime minister Damian Green said: “If we allow a whole generation to become disillusioned with what democracy has to offer, we are playing with fire.

“It is an urgent challenge to all democratic Governments that the system offers hope to young people, so that if they work hard they can expect the rewards that their parents and grandparents enjoyed.

“This report’s recommendations show that there are solutions that would reconcile young people with the necessary compromises of democracy, and I hope the Government treats them very seriously.”