In the past decade, starting around 2006, a lot of Social Media sites started breaking into the mainstream. Blogs, Facebook, photo-sharing, and video-sharing sites started attracting hundreds of thousands and millions of users around the world.
As expected, young people led the way in adapting and finding various uses of these technologies. Some built blogs that earned the money, some started building their online following, and observers around the world were fascinated with the immense possibilities that these new media technologies represented.
Before long, these technologies were used for writing and airing personal opinions, on religion, politics, business, and other less controversial topics.
Looking back from 2018, these technologies definitely provided a venue for young people’s voices to be heard.
Platforms for Youth Voices
When I was in high school, we didn’t have a lot of computers in our rural high school, we didn’t have the world wide web then and all the technologies that it eventually enabled.
But we had our printed school paper. (Yes, I a ancient that way). That was our main way of publicizing youth voices in our commmunity. These days, though, there are quite a number of platforms where youth voices can be aired.
Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr and other social media sites are easily the most accessible platforms for young people to use. They can easily post their thoughts, ideas, complaints, and rants for their friends to react to.
With smartphone ownership and mobile data connectivity on the rise around the world, this has become almost automatic for young people. It doesn’t matter if they are in the city or in rural areas, if they have online capability, most of them will use these platforms.
They post selfies, lots and lots of photos, as well as memes and quotations they find interesting.
One of the most prominent Christian youth blogs I encountered in the late 2000s is the Rebelution blog, founded by the Harris twins (brother of Christian Pastor Joshua Harris–he of the I Kissed Dating Goodbye fame!).
It was more than just a devotional, inspirational website, it actually challenged it readers–majority of them are young Christiaans–to defy the low expectations that society imposes on youth.
Since then, blogging in general has evolved and it has become very easy to create a blog. Back when I was in the Philippines (prior to 2015), I saw a good number of blogs being started by young people in the Philippines. Not a lot of them grow to a significant readership. But it is definitely a venue for self-expression, especially for those who are inclined to write.
Smartphones have become really affordable these days. More than just texting and calling, young people are using their phones to take millions of selfies and create videos of themselves. A lot of these are silly, goofy videos. Why not? It’s a fun, creative way to express themselves.
Online videos are also tightly integrated now with social media. Facebook has an online video platform. Some young people are even starting to develop a pretty good-sized following because of their videos. Next time you’re on Facebook, scroll through some of the videos that cross your feed and you’ll see a bunch of young people producing and uploading content daily!
All of these platforms enable young people’s creative expression to be available to the broader public. It’s not just about self-expression and posting funny or silly things. People–young and old–are now posting their opinions about the products they use, services they purchase, and on different current issues in the society.
It’s not uncommon to encounter a young person’s political rant following a selfie, or a meme, or a random statement on Facebook and other Social Media.
But what is Youth Voice?
I’ve been doing some reading on this topic and some researchers have identified concepts that are closely tied to the idea of a “youth voice.” These are the following:
Participation & Citizenship
Youth voice is often discussed in the context of participation in political action, or in decision-making processes of a community or organization. Having a “voice” means being present and having the opportunity to speak up and voice out ideas, concerns, or opinions. Whether that opportunity actually leads to speaking out is not guaranteed.
A lot of professionals who work with youth, especially those in the Academe and research field, tend to talk about youth voice primarily in the area of political participation. These would include activities that are considered the rights and duties of citizens such as voting and participating in political processes. In the Philippines, we even have a political youth office in the barangay (village), town or city, and province levels. So that could definitely be considered as an aspect of youth voice.
Empowerment & Agency
Youth voice is also associated with giving power to young people so that they are able to make decisions on their own and follow through on those decisions. “Agency” refers to the ability to act and not just waiting on someone to do things for them or give them what they need.
A Definition of Youth Voice
I came across a good definition of what youth voice is. According to Peter Levine:
“[youth public voice is something] that can persuade other people–beyond the closest friends and family – to take action on shared issues.”
I like this definition because it takes into account the components mentioned above. It’s about persuading other people–which means speaking out and making arguments that would help improve the lives and situations of young people.
Youth Voices instead of a singular “Voice”
As I read and think about youth empowerment and youth voice, we need to remember that there is no singular youth voice. Young people come from different backgrounds, worldviews, religions (or the lack of it), and contexts. It is helpful to understand that there are youth voices and not a singular youth voice. It is not monolithic and does not necessarily advocate for the same position in a debate or issue.
Case in point: there are youth in the Philippines who are critics of President Duterte, and there are those who call themselves “Duterte Youth” and they are hardcore supporters of the President.
In addition the authors of a study I recently read (Caron, et.al) asks several important questions related to youth voice and empowerment:
- Who is listening to youth voices?
- Who is mediating their voices?
- Who decides which voice is worth listening to, or whose voice deserves to be amplified?
Who is listening to youth voices?
Having a voice means speaking out. Speaking out is part of a two-way process–speaking and listening. Who is listening to these voices? Are they being recognized? Are their elders allowing their voices to affect and inform decisions?
In the age of Social Media, it has become easier for youth to amplify their voices. They post on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites. They also capture and edit videos and upload them to YouTube and Facebook. It has become more difficult to censor and mediate their voices.
But, too often, their voices are heard by other youth. Elders, leaders, and other sectors of society may easily ignore youth voices–online and off.
Who is mediating their voices? and Who decides which voice is worth listening to, or whose voice deserves to be amplified?
Are there forces using youth voices toward specific ends? Are they being mediated or censored? Or are youth voices being manipulated to push a certain agenda or product?
In the World Wide Web, it has become easier for youth and young adults to become ‘influencers’ through their photos on Instagram, posts on Facebook and Twitter, and blogs among others. In the process, however, they end up promoting products in exchange for money or other forms of payment.
We also have to admit that even youth and young adults have varying levels of power in society. Admittedly, youth with higher socio-economic status have access to 24/7 internet connection, better computers, software, and other gear that they can use to amplify their voices online.
Whose voices are missing?
I would add another question to the three above: “whose voices are missing?”
There are youth in the margins of society, at-risk, and do not have the means to amplify their voices.
This is perhaps an area of youth work (in both religious and secular settings) that we should be sensitive about–so we could support them, listen to their voices, and support the projects and causes they care about.
Levine, P. (2008). “A Public Voice for Youth: the Audience Problem in Digital Media and Civic Education”. In W.L. Bennett (ed), Civic Life Online: Learning How Digital Media can Engage Youth (pp. 119-138). Cambridge: The MIT Press.
Caron, C., Raby, R., Mitchell, C., Thewissen-LeBlanc, S., & Prioletta, J. (2017). From concept to data: sleuthing social change-oriented youth voices on YouTube. Journal of Youth Studies, 20(1), 47-62. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13676261.2016.1184242.