Youth Voice on the Internet

Research shows youth are using the Internet more than ever right now. Based on almost 20 years experience, the Freechild Institute is interested is exploring the reality that this usage is complex and sophisticated, and shares youth voice in nearly countless ways. This article explores how youth voice is happening on the Internet, where it is happening and why it is happening.


Understanding the Issue

With the COVID-19 pandemic sending young people online worldwide, its more important than ever to understand how youth voice can be heard on the internet. This means understanding who shares youth voice, how it happens, why it matters, when youth voice occurs online, and what it means to listen to youth voice online.

Adults’ concerns for young people are often and accidentally distrustful and disrespectful of children and youth. Without intention, we assume the worst of our students and participants in many spaces. Relying on cold data and calculated statistics, our programs and classes figure young people are doing the worst possible things they can be until we correct their course.

Unfortunately, this is true online too. With sensational headlines and screaming pronouncements we decide learners aren’t learning, leaders aren’t leading and youth are going to hell in a handbasket whether they’re playing video games, chatting with friends or otherwise not doing what adults want them to, where they want it done, in ways they can predict.

In order to defeat these worst projections, we have to understand the value of youth voice on the internet.


Four Factors

The graphic above includes four different factors I believe are important when we examine youth voice on the internet. These factors are:

  1. Expressions of Youth Voice on the Internet
  2. Aspects of Youth Voice Online
  3. Types of Youth Voice on the Internet
  4. A Continuum of Youth Voice Online

The following sections explore these four factors.

1. Expressions of Youth Voice on the Internet

Expressions of Youth Voice on the Internet
This graphic illustrates expressions of youth voice online.

In my early writing, I explored how youth voice is best defined as any expression of any young person anywhere, about anything, any time, in any way for any reason at all. This definition reflects the wide-ranging intentions, forms and outcomes of youth voice. It is meant to deny the necessity of adults in youth voice, and instead affirms the most authentic forms of youth voice. Young people do not need adult permission, activities or acceptance to share youth voice; it is already shared wherever youth are all of the time. The question isn’t whether youth are sharing their voices; its whether adults are willing and able to hear what is being said.

All of that said, it is important to expand on what and how adults think youth voice is shared. When I listen to youth voice in my projects, research and home, I look for the following directly from youth themselves:

  • Thoughts
  • Ideas
  • Attitudes
  • Knowledge
  • Tone
  • Feelings
  • Beliefs
  • Opinions
  • Ideas
  • Wisdom
  • Moods

That’s not a complete list of different expressions of youth voice, either. However, it can begin to alert adults to the various ways young people make themselves hear on the internet already. Learn more ways youth voice is expressed elsewhere here »

2. Aspects of Youth Voice Online

Online Youth Voice Aspects
This graphic illustrates two aspects of youth voice on the Internet.

Since youth voice can be expressed in virtually countless ways online, I believe it is vital to examine different aspects of these expressions. One way is by observing the ways youth voice online is private, and the ways youth voice online is public. The difference between these two can be seen like this:

Private Youth Voice can be transient, fluctuating, isolated, direct and immediate. In different types of private youth voice, the expressions of young people can appear and disappear quickly; they are targeted towards certain people, frequently their peers; and they are often intimate, personal and emotional, whether funny, depressing, angry or just blah. It is most often shared alone, between just two people, or within a small group of people. Private youth voice fluctuates and reveals the differentiating nature of young people, changing according to their increasing knowledge, skills and abilities. Finally, its immediate and sudden, often reflecting reflective thinking and critical analysis, but also showing whit, style and perception at the same time.

Public Youth Voice can be more permanent, steady, expansive, indirect and gradual. When young people are talking with adults in large group settings, working together with their peers to lead movements or make large-scale statements, building online strategies and creating massive social change, they are sharing public youth voice. Public youth voice typifies young people because it can seem like these expressions freeze young peoples’s voices in a single place and time, making it appear as a steady, regular phenomenon. With countless issues it can be expressed towards, public youth voice can seem very broad too, and with its apparent permanency public youth voice can seem to make a gradual appearance, as if it comes from a logical, intentional and strategic place.

3. Types of Youth Voice on the Internet

Youth voice activities on the Internet
This graphic illustrates different youth voice activities on the Internet.

The Internet provides a unique avenue for youth voice because it is public and private at the same time.

When youth share different types of youth voice online, they are often hyper-conscious of these different aspects. For instance, in the traditional types of youth voice on the internet, young people create public artifacts for the masses to consume on the web. This includes commenting, web design, blogging, video-making, and conference calls. These are all static ways the Internet has been used for a long time, if not throughout its entire existence.

In current types of youth voice, the internet is used in private ways, including emails, private chat, texting and messaging. These are all transient ways that can and often do completely disappear after they are consumed. Examples of this technology include TikTok, Snapchat, iMessages, Discord and much, much more.

Along with several other ways, social media, gaming and hashtags can represent both private (transient) and public (static) types of youth voice online.

Learn about different ways youth voice is shared »

4. A Continuum of Youth Voice Online

Continuum of Youth Voice Online
This graphic illustrates a continuum of youth voice online.

Understanding why youth express themselves online isn’t rocket science, but isn’t always clear, either. It can be useful to understand all youth voice online through the lenses of the “3 C” continuum: Creation, Consumption and Criticism. These three C’s can help us listen to youth voice on the Internet more effectively:

  • Are youth creating the Internet by producing content and communicating, including chatting, blogging, creating websites, PDFs, infographics, photos, videos, etc.?
  • Are youth consuming the Internet by reading, buying, watching, listening, playing, and otherwise intaking different content already produced on the Internet?
  • Are youth criticizing the Internet and its content with critical thinking and interacting with other web users through conversation, commenting, recreating and remixing the Internet and its content?

Summary

When considering these factors, it’s important to understand that youth voice is never simply one thing for all youth, everywhere, all the time—not simply online, but also at home, throughout the community, and far beyond!

Instead, this article is meant to show youth voice on the internet as a broad, dynamic and constantly shifting reality. It can be an avenue for democratic engagement and culture building, as well as critical pedagogy and social justice. However, it can just as easily be weaponized to implement fascism and enforce the will of tyrants.

Do you have a favorite type of youth voice online? What are your questions, comments or concerns about this article? Please share your thoughts, ideas and responses in the comments!


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This is really one of the best ones I’ve read thus far. But I have hardly made a dent in your site, Mr. Fletcher.

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