Tech and Society

Youth Voice in the Digital Age Cohort: Convening Two

It was time again to convene our Youth Voice cohort for (hopefully) the last virtual gathering. We originally assembled our Tech and Society ‘Youth Voice in the Digital Age’ cohort in pursuit of the answer to a single question: How can young people inspire their peers to use technology in healthy ways and make digital spaces better for everyone? At the time, we didn’t know just how much of an impact technology would have on our lives during the pandemic, and each organization has made creative pivots to address the challenges that last year brought. 

Our first convening, hosted last October, focused on community building within the cohort and best practices for elevating youth voice in programming. During convening two we continued our road trip, with the theme being “speed bumps:” challenges that youth are facing in their pursuit of digital well-being and challenges that adults encounter in authentically engaging youth around these issues. As a community, we are building towards the third convening, where we will collectively identify the most promising opportunities to foster peer-to-peer action around digital well-being.

Though our road trip is not yet done, we are proud to see early victories from each organization. Above all, we are learning that youth feel agency and a sense of urgency around issues of digital well-being, and our cohort members are responding in kind. Here are just a few examples of the ways youth are using their voices in this conversation.

Podcasts and Gaming as a Safe Space

Youth are eager for opportunities to reflect and share their experiences with technology in a positive, safe space, but creating those spaces authentically can be challenging. Thankfully, many of the teams, such as those at the Beam Center, Spy Hop Productions, Digital Harbor Foundation, and Games for Change are working to create safe spaces for youth to grapple with pressing digital well-being topics. Podcasts and gaming are two venues that are proving to be relatable and effective outlets for young people. For instance, Digital Harbor Foundation’s Critical Tech Podcast program has empowered Baltimore City youth to lead community discussions about the most pressing technology issues facing youth today. Listen to the first 13 episodes here. In another example, Youth Avenue is a podcast produced by the Healthy Digital Futures Youth Research Team at the Beam Center. It examines issues around digital spaces and the way youth interact with them. Youth Avenue is backed by original research completed by youth research teams during the summer of 2020. Listen to the first episodes on virtual learning and cancel culture here. 

Empowering Youth to Design their Own Solutions

Digital life can be overwhelming. Unfettered access, a constant spotlight, social comparison, fear of being cancelled…the list goes on. Gen Z knows this all too well. Another speed bump identified by members of the cohort was the general overwhelm and struggle youth feel in trying to find balance in digital life and experiences. For example, not knowing when to take a technology break, losing self-esteem because of social comparison, staying up to date on current events and speaking intelligently about them, worrying about self-perceptions and cancel culture. This feeling of overwhelm, along with many other factors in not feeling as if youth have agency around their digital experience or the ability to change it, can lead to feelings of powerlessness. 

The teams at Peacecasters, Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, and YES are empowering youth to prioritize the issues that matter to them, find solutions and act on them through the development of curriculum or localized projects. In one such project from a Yale inspirED team, students identified safety as an area for growth in their school, citing new concerns due to COVID-19 and mask-wearing on the buses and other common spaces. They created and distributed a Google survey to compare feelings of safety between the in-person and distance learning students and look for action steps to help everyone feel safe.

“Our team has been so impressed by the inspirED students’ consistent compassion for others. When offered the opportunity to advocate for any change at their school that they wish, they continue to surprise us with their concern for their peers and willingness to use their position to help those around them.”

Jessica D. Hoffmann, Ph.D. Associate Research Scientist, Yale Child Study Center & Director of Adolescent Initiatives, Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence

From Research to Practice

Two of the cohort projects from Project Zero and Erikson Institute are focused on integrating youth in the process of research, data collection, and analysis. Youth are then producing toolkits to share these findings with a broader audience. Based on key insights from youth focus groups, the team at Erikson Institute is empowering high school students to deliver content in an informal learning space rather than formal settings (e.g. school) or through adult facilitators. They are truly meeting youth where they’re at and working to ensure that youth voice is at the center of program design, content development, and delivery. 

As we all know, challenges have been plenty this past year and yet we are inspired by the momentum of this cohort in taking the opportunity to connect with youth digitally (how meta!) and in some cases to reach broader audiences. Along the way, this diverse group of organizations and projects have approached a few speed bumps but have continued to their road trip destinations. 

We look forward to next summer’s, dare we say, in-person convening focused on opportunities! We see a lot of opportunity for these projects, the Youth Voice cohort as a whole and for all of the youth participants.