The future of youth participation online

Webinar | Understanding recent trends in digital civic engagement by adolescents and young people

The Global Insight team
12 May 2020
10 minute read

As the civic space goes digital, what can we learn about the opportunities — and challenges — of this rapidly emerging area of adolescent and youth participation? This webinar presented findings from a recent UNICEF analysis, ‘Digital civic engagement by adolescents and young people’, and explored the future of youth online participation after the COIVD-19 pandemic. The webinar panel:

  • Alexander Cho, PhD, University of California and lead author of Rapid Analysis: Digital Civic Engagement by Young People (UNICEF, March 2020)
  • Nelson Kwaje, Youth activist and Program Director of Defy Hate Now
  • Jasmina Byrne, UNICEF Office of Global Insight and Policy
  • Jumana Haj Ahmad, UNICEF Chief of Adolescent Development and Participation
UNICEF Office of Global Insight and Policy
UNICEF Webinar: Launch of draft 1.0 of Policy Guidance on AI for Children, hosted by Office of Global Insight and Policy (OGIP), 16 Sept 2020

Extended Q&A

Popular culture media like memes and TikTok videos are often used for civic expression by young people but are considered ‘shallow’ acts of engagement. Will these approaches be taken more seriously after widespread digital interaction of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Alexander Cho: Young people are already taking it seriously, so it’s really a matter of perspective. COVID-19 might now convince the adults that they need to take it seriously. Right in front of our eyes we can see wider organic civic engagement coming out of these approaches and we can no longer ignore them.

How do we ensure marginalized adolescents in rural areas are participating in the digital space, despite lack of internet and access to technology?

Nelson Kwaje: It has a policy engagement component and a solutions component. You cannot create an app for everything! Some of these issues must be approached at the structural and policy level. For example, whether internet is considered a private service, a national right or a global public good is a norm set by policymakers. Internet might not be a classic human right but given the wide spread of digital service delivery, internet becomes a core access issue. There are already policy frameworks being developed for this and so we need to keep an eye on their rollout. We also need to fast track certain technologies that make it possible to connect those in rural areas, such as Google’s Loon balloons. This means supporting entrepreneurial approaches and considering how to scale them.  

How can we engage the culturally voiceless who have little authority or ability to claim space?

Jumana Haj-Ahmad: Moving forward, while a lot is moving into the digital space, organisations like UNICEF still need to work through physical interaction and support. We will continue to need a mix of online and offline to ensure the voices of the most disadvantaged can be heard. We can continue to advocate for increased connectivity and digital literacy, and support awareness-raising with parents to help adolescents have the space to share their views. There is a huge opportunity with digital platforms to engage directly online in policy dialogue with policymakers. However, we must consider how to help the most disadvantaged access these forums and support them to engage meaningfully in these spaces.

Aside from lack of internet and access to technology, how do we support young people who may lack skills to engage digitally?

Alexander Cho: Digital literacy education is so important. There is a ton of literature in that field, and I am not an expert in it, but I imagine this could materialize as in-school or out-of-school learning environments that teach video-making and narrative strategy or Photoshop, etc. As well, young people learn incredibly quickly from their peers, so a peer-education component in digital literacy practice could be quite interesting. For example, I am amazed by Snapchat's reluctance to spell out how to use each feature of the platform for new users - they realize that having new users ask their peers how to use the platform correctly, including relaying hidden or expert knowledge, is a sure-fire way of building in engagement. Of course, any effort in literacy education should be housed in a critical dialogue about what it means to participate civically in this way, proper civil conduct, how to identify disinformation, how to maintain privacy, how to deal with negative feedback, and the like.

What can we do differently to engage adolescents in the digital space?

Alexander Cho: We know from the UNICEF study that the digital space is increasing inequalities in LACRO, for example. People who have more access to technology get more tools to be able to engage. Young people from lower quintiles use internet mostly for communication while those from higher quintiles can create their own contacts, look for information, and more. This is a real concern in our region, as nearly 40% of adolescents don’t have access to e-learning. As we engage more young people digitally, there is also the tendency to further exclude those who are already excluded e.g. young people with disabilities. Even with COVID-19, there is still the lack of appetite for digital initiatives and programme design to be more inclusive, either because it is costly or more time consuming.

If offline civic engagement always involves co-presence while online can be done in solitude, are we expanding the definition to the point where it is losing some of what makes it civic?

Alexander Cho: I think this is an especially salient question in today's quarantined world. I think it really depends on what we mean by "civic." I view this as, very broadly, belonging to and participating in a polity or community, and I think we are currently being forced to push our received wisdom of what that may mean. For example, I would suggest that people can actually be "co-present" via digital. I used this term in the webinar, but perhaps a better term to describe offline interactions may be "physically co-located." The irony I'd point out is that many folks — LGBTQ, people of colour (in the US context), women, and even youth — have never or rarely been afforded the privilege of being publicly physically co-located without intense policing or social pressure and yet have still managed to form community throughout history. In fact, they may be better at coming up with novel strategies of community than those in socially dominant positions! I'd suggest we look to them for best practices in thinking through our new moment of complicated presence/location/civic engagement.

Lastly, I'd point back to one of the key findings of the UNICEF paper, which is that we never want to think of the "online" and "offline" worlds as isolated from each other or unconnected. We know that for today's youth, this is better thought of as a spectrum of engagement that blends online and off, so it may be best to rethink "civic" itself in that way.

Where do we draw the line that separates social engagement from civic engagement?

Alexander Cho: Research shows that, especially for young people, this distinction is (and perhaps should be) blurry at best. For example, there is a documented correlation between peer and affinity group membership around non-political topics (such as fandom, or other shared interests) and political engagement. As discussed in the UNICEF analysis, those youth that are engaged socially around shared interests are more likely to engage in acts of political participation in other contexts. Notably however, for this to be true, these affinity groups should not be composed solely of pre-existing friends. Research finds that youth peer groups that are only composed of pre-existing friend networks do not increase political engagement. This suggests that youth benefit from exposure to new perspectives and ideas and backgrounds by virtue of shared interests, and not simply friendship.

Is digital civic engagement an opportunity to facilitate interaction between governments and youth? If so, how to we encourage that form of engagement?

Nelson Kwaje: A lot of work has been done on this but there is still more to be done. To give credit to global policy spaces such as the Global Internet Governance Forum or UNESCO’s mobile network initiative — there’s a lot being done here to facilitate public interaction. But there is still a lot to be done to reach out to young people. Organisations with global leverage need to work with local youth, particularly to accelerate national policy approaches. Often young people need to go oversees to be heard — I myself first got to speak to my Minister of Information at a  UNESCO meeting in Paris, even though I have been working locally in this area for a long time. It’s an opportunity I wouldn’t have had at home. How can we amplify voices of local actors to be noticed by policymakers in their countries?

How do we support young people who are mobilised in online civic engagement on topics which governments strongly censure?

Alexander Cho: The understanding of local use, local context and local platforms is vital to understanding how to support young people. One of the things we cover in the paper is that young people are very savvy when it comes to understanding the different functions and designs — or ‘affordances’ — offered by different digital platforms and swapping platforms for different needs. When you can easily remove a chat history or wipe the history of your presence in a group, these features may be of use in the case of potential government surveillance. Organisations which to support young people in this case should do their due diligence to understand what platforms and functions young people are already using. Where organisations like UNICEF can support is to offer more coherent and long-term sense of trends in surveillance and advise on these.

How can we better balance some of the risks to young people present in the digital space?

Jasmina Byrne:  This is really a policy question and organisations like UNICEF have a lot to do to work with policymakers and the private sector to ensure safe environments are established for children and young people. There’s a lot to be said about skills and building the digital skills of young people to ensure they can move within digital environments safely. But that’s only one side of the coin. The other side of the coin is making sure digital spaces are safe for young people by ensuring data protection and working to have laws and regulations in place to protect user data, which is particularly critical where young people may be discussing topics that are sensitive. This also means balancing the encryption of certain platforms young people use when they feel there may be surveillance, which can support the rights of those who may be considered dissidents. Fighting misinformation is also a huge issue. This is not only about young people having the ability to tell real from fake but is also about promoting digital media is accurate, fact-checked and does not spread misinformation.  

How do we make civic engagement in digital spaces safe for young people?

Alexander Cho: This is a big question, and I can imagine an entirely separate webinar centring around safety, privacy, affordance, and design for engagement. Briefly, I would keep in mind that digital civic engagement comes in many forms and does not always have to be, or be at first, public with a massive audience, such as producing YouTube videos for the world — especially in contexts where public comment may be a liability. Remember, even simply reading news or discussing current events with peers "counts" as civic engagement. Maybe it's as simple as creating an organizationally-bounded news-and-views discussion space, for example, before one even thinks about mobilizing for change on the governmental or policy level. It's all about modulation and gradation — does the engagement space you envision even have to be open to the general public? Do you want to control membership? Do you want to require "persistent pseudonyms" so that youth can participate in a verified way but remain anonymous to uninvolved observers? What is your code of conduct, and what are the consequences for violating it? I am incredibly inspired by the work that digital activist and designer Esra'a Al Shafei does with LGBTQ youth in the Middle East — she is great at understanding the nuances of how to balance engagement and expression with safety and privacy.

How can we best use SMS — and is SMS digital enough?

Alexander Cho: A resounding YES. This is actually incredibly important. We want to think about digital engagement using the tools that youth already use. There is research in the human-computer interaction field that suggests there are strong benefits of using "mundane tech" such as SMS for engagement instead of, say, building an entirely new purpose-driven platform.

I led a study that specifically investigated the use of SMS in helping connect low-income families to local out-of-school learning opportunities in their area and it was successful beyond our expectations. In our study we found that people welcomed SMS messages that contained very relevant and targeted information that was connected to their local community ("Here's a free after-school programme in your area"). They did not mind getting several messages a week, as long as each message was different and had something of value. Also, we found that SMS was advantageous, as opposed to building a novel app or platform for communication, because people could easily forward SMS messages on to their friends and families if they thought they would be interested.

How do we evaluate digital civic engagement?

Alexander Cho: I'd connect this back to the two frameworks we discussed. One can imagine using the vocabularies in these frameworks (aims, actors, contexts, intensities, etc) to create a series of metrics to evaluate digital civic engagement that serve your particular endeavour. As well, one benefit of using digital is that it can generate real-time engagement data that can be used for evaluation (when balanced with privacy controls). 

In your research on youth and digital civic engagement, what was your most surprising finding?

Alexander Cho: Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised, but I am constantly amazed and inspired by how smart and creative youth can be when they feel safe and empowered to express in this way!