Youth participation’s growing momentum

By Anne Collier

It’s exciting to see the signs of adult support for youth voices and participation multiplying. It’s important and it’s time. Here is just a sampler of this encouraging trend:

  • Agency for citizenship. In Internet safety circles, we’re seeing increasing focus more on citizenship (online and offline) rather than on safety alone – safety as a means to competent participation and expression in participatory media and a networked world. Digital and physical safety, or protection, is one of three categories of rights enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child: protection, provision and participation (see this on the “3 P’s” and this on citizenship). As for why active participation, or agency, is so important for our children, Prof. James Paul Gee at Arizona State University, put it better than I ever could: “People and institutions will have to be resilient and change with change. They will have to gain very real skills with critical thinking and complexity in order not to be dupes and victims of the rich, corporations, media, and governments. They must become activists, knowers, producers, and participants and plug into and play with the right team of people and tools” (as quoted in’s MindShift).
  • Born brave. Through research, events for youth, its Youth Advisory Board and continued learning, the Born This Way Foundation is talking about innovating ways to support young people “where, when, and how they need it,” writes its Research Advisory Board chair, University of Nebraska psychology professor Susan Swearer, in the Huffington Post. The focus is on support and support delivery mechanisms that are both meaningful and useful to youth, rather than on the adult supporters and legacy systems and tools, Dr. Swearer writes. Also in keeping with young people’s wishes, as they and I have heard from youth, the Foundation is focused more on empowering something – “the social and emotional well-being of our youth” – than on just stopping something: bullying and social cruelty, which debilitatingly focuses attention on people as perpetrators and victims.
  • The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child & the student-sourced Student Bill of Rights in the US both say youth have the right to participate in decisions that affect them. Art. 5 in the Student Bill calls for “meaningful engagement and participation” in “decisions and discussions” that affect students. Art. 12 of the UNCRC states that any child “capable of forming his or her own views [has] the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.”
  • A brain trust of youth. Since its launch in 2012, hundreds of young people from all over Australia have helped shape the research agenda of that country’s Young & Well Cooperative Research Centre as members of its Youth Brains Trust. “The Young and Well CRC would not happen without young people, simple as that. They are the centre of the entire organisation and the reason we exist,” says the CRC’s page on the Brains Trust. Here‘s a blog post from one of its members, Michael Fajardo, at the end of his tenure.
  • Youth views & voices. Stan Davis and Charisse Nixon, co-creators of the Youth Voice Project, surveyed more than 13,000 US students in grades 5-12 to get their thinking on bullying, adult responses to it and how to prevent it. Because, they wrote, “youth are the primary experts on what is happening at school and on what works best to prevent peer maltreatment…. We see authentic youth involvement as key to success in bullying prevention” (I first blogged about their preliminary findings in 2010 here).
  • In Their Own Words: With its 2012 look at online risk from a youth perspective, EU Kids Online made the conscious effort to find out from their 25,000+ 9-to-15-year-old respondents themselves what bothers them online. The researchers unprecedentedly found that “the public policy agenda now seems rather narrow. It is the sheer diversity of risks that concern them, albeit often in small numbers, that stands out.” They also discovered that the adult-framed “three C’s” of online risk – content (as in pornographic), contact (as in predators) and conduct (as in cyberbullying) – also turned out to be “rather narrow. Particularly striking … is the importance of violent, aggressive and gory content” in the responses of the youth they surveyed (my 2013 blog post about their report is here).
  • ConnectSafely’s advocacy for young people’s rights of expression and participation and for involving them in the public discourse about their online safety is the foundation of, among other projects, our Safer Internet Day events since we were appointed US coordinators of the annual awareness campaign in 2013 (see this about perspectives shared by student leaders at our first SID event last year). Next week’s SID event, to be held at Facebook headquarters, will feature youth activists in its panel discussions, and some 200 other students will be participating, way outnumbering the adults attending.

That’s just a handful of examples; please post more in the comment box below – or email them to me via anne[at] Our (adults’) support for youth agency and participation is essential to their citizenship in a citizen-sourced, networked world.

Their activism

New York Times columnist Charles Blow wrote this past December of a “new age of activism”: “Much does not fit neatly into the confines of conventional politics or the structures of traditional power. It’s often diffuse. It’s often organic and largely leaderless. It’s often about a primary event but also myriad secondary ones. It is, in a way, a social network approach to social justice, not so much captain-orchestrated as crowd-sourced, people sharing, following and liking their way to consensus and collective consciousness.”

This is the activism of our children. They’re not only comfortable with a social, or networked, approach to social justice, they’re competent users of its tools of communication and organization. I’m not talking about “clicktivism,” or one-click, online-only activism. This is activism in digital or physical space that uses social-media rather than the mass-media tools for organizing, communicating and consciousness-raising. [I suspect the activists of Generations Y and Z (or whatever label adults apply) know full well that clicktivism isn’t activism at all – not without the offline part.]

Sometimes we’re so busy sharing the wisdom of activism and organizing we gained in the mass media era that we fail to honor the instincts, understanding and skills our youth bring to the table. Maybe if we listen to youth voices a little more, raise ours a little less pedantically and work with them more collaboratively, they’ll be better able to fix the social problems they face with the digital age tools they understand so well.

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