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Youth voice requires online access, literacy

By Trudy Dunham

2014 marks both the 25th anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the creation of the World Wide Web. It wouldn't have occurred to me to connect these two transformational events, but it occurred to Urs Gasser, and I'm glad it did. He reminds us that that the world wide web is a major tool for young people to access and exercise their rights. And that youth voice, their participation in discussions on the key issues of today, is vital.

Gasser acknowledges that even after 25 years, disparities remain in the well-being of children and youth: their ability to exercise their rights, and in their online access and network literacy. These disparities place our children at risk, as well as the health and well-being of our society overall.

When we consider Internet risks, we usually think of cyberbullies, breaches of privacy, and sexual predators. Last month I read a report on the prevalence, research findings and future research needs for youth online. The findings held no surprises, but the authors' recommendations for future research highlighted the need to utilize youth interviews and observations, and address the culture of digital media use given the ubiquitous presence of mobile devices.

Their recommendations reflect the heart of Gasser's concerns. Youth use digital media to access information and education, to connect with their family, friends and community, and for self-expression. Many would argue that digital media are essential to these functions. And the more mobile our media are, the more they can and are integrated into our daily lives. So when conditions limit youth access to digital media, they are less able to learn, to meet their own needs, and to participate in society. They lose the ability to develop their potential, and to fully exercise their rights.

Society loses as well. We lose access to their ideas and innovations. We lose access to their concerns and solutions. We lose access to their art and entertainment. We lose the involvement and visibility of an essential segment of our society.

Gasser encourages us to consider the reciprocity between the rights of the child and the access to Internet: that each supports the other. And that youth are an essential part of the conversation as we address the inequities and gaps in their implementation, and the impact they have on society.

I'd encourage us to go even further - to consider the children of tomorrow. How will the world wide web - or whatever tool replaces it - facilitate the participation, learning and creativity of tomorrow's youth in a global society? Given the pace of change, it's not too early to start thinking about that.

So let's don't think too small, too confining. Let's give youth voice, and not forget to include strong advocacy for our future generations. We need our young people to grow up healthy and happy, skilled and creative, so they can address the complex issues of today's society and planet. Let's make it our responsibility to ensure that they have the rights and the means to succeed!

-- Trudy Dunham, former research fellow

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  1. Trudy - what a great insight by both Gasser and you regarding these two birthday celebrations. As I have traveled and worked in Europe and seen the way the European Union has taken the UN Convention on the Rights of Children seriously and built it into their policy efforts at the EU as well as country levels, I am struck by the power it can bring.
    Combine that with the power of the internet and social media and you have the ingredients of world wide change.
    On a local level, we are working on an effort to engage youth voices in the social and emotional learning and development area in our Understanding to Action Initiative with Youthprise. We are preparing to launch a web site in January ( that will use social media to engage youth in tweeting text and images, doing weekly polls, and also completing surveys about how they view the importance, relevance and responsibility for social and emotional development. This reflects our belief that youth must have a voice in things that affect their development and learning and in the societies in which they live as well as the belief that youth input adds precious new insights and direction to what might be done.
    Change is really happening and the UN convention and the internet are important tools to help change more forward and succeed.

  2. It is good to know that you have seen the impact of the UN Convention on the Rights of Children in your European travels; I have as well.
    And I'm excited to learn about your local efforts starting next month. The November elections and recent unrest in our cities have demonstrated again the power of social media. We need to add the perspectives and ideas of youth to our conversations for positive change to happen. This is an exciting opportunity for youth to showcase what they bring to society.

  3. Thanks for your post Trudy! It's so important to remember and acknowledge that youth are growing up in a world that is incredibly connected in a way that is very different from 25 years ago.
    So often social media and online interactions are demonized. Yet these online environments have the potential to open up communication and conversation worldwide in a way that was not possible 25 years ago. This is exciting as youth develop friendships that span continents, and open their minds to perspectives and ideas that were once suppressed or unacknowledged. Future creative solutions to the world's problems can, and will, come from these cross-national, cross-sector, cross-class, and cross-cultural virtual collaborations. As such, it's important to understand the power of the interconnected world we live in, and ascertain how to promote the incredible power of collaboration that youth can lead across the globe.
    I'm curious if you have any thoughts for how those of us who work with youth can better acknowledge and support the cross-world youth involved collaborations that already exist on the internet?

  4. I'm not sure, Sara. I know that youth often don't like their parent or caring adult to follow them or comment
    on social media. But I think this relates to the adult making a mistake: the adult trying on the friend
    role instead of staying in the caring adult and mentor role.
    A blog I read, Development Progress, hosted a series of blog posts last August around International Youth Day. A statement in one of these posts made me think: “When it comes to translating
    commitments into action, young people believe they can be a real driving force for change – but only if they feel they have vested interests in the cause.”
    Which leads me to believe that the most important thing we can do to support youth is to make their issues our issues. To make sure their issues show
    up in our communities and conversations. We can track down their online media and collaborations; we can follow read their posts, cite their posts, repost, ask questions, and give attention to the causes they support.
    When we are in the youth worker and mentor role, we know our role is to support and facilitate. And we know too well that to make a difference on a complex issue requires ongoing effort. We don't want today's youth to
    get discouraged at slow or no progress, to lose confidence in their ability to make a difference. So my best answer is to find ways to make sure that their causes are included, and support their efforts to explore and find solutions that our society desperately needs.
    What do you think?

  5. A wonderful connection between the world wide web (of internet technology) and the world wide web (of shared responsibility for our children and youth.) You found the thread, followed it, and wove it into a dream catcher for all.
    Good on you!!

  6. Thanks Derek. Let's keep thinking about how to promote youth voice and digital literacy, and support them in efforts to be a real force for positive change in our world!