Listening to young people
Streaming live from the Princes Trust Centre, Manchester couldn’t have felt more appropriate as Jonathan Townsend their CEO welcomed us and Nominet’s CEO Paul Fletcher said: “the most important place to start is listening to young people.” So that’s what we did.
Bella Bennett, Blessing Lunghy and Joss Wellburn from our Youth Panel convened by Catch 22 were first up in discussion with Dr Kira Allman. Bella spoke to how the world has changed since the COVID lockdowns and reflected on experience of sharing a laptop at home to do schoolwork.
Moving to online safety and what to do when experiencing upsetting content, Bella said “Sometimes I don’t feel comfortable telling an adult, and there’s no way really on social media to say ‘this is wrong’.. It’s not really dealt with. You see [upsetting] things every day. Sometimes you don’t feel protected.”
Joss explained further: “One of the things that could really easily be done is the way that we report online hate speech. I’m not comfortable being myself online because of that hate speech. When you report things, the context is totally missed. There’s still so much misinformation left over from COVID online too, with the appropriate sort of data protection measures in place, ID verification should be a really easy thing to do.”
Blessing reflected on receiving support from school on how to protect yourself from harm, even if this isn’t the experience of all, with a fifth (20%) of young people surveyed as part of the Index saying they do not feel that they have received good foundational training from school to help them use digital technology. Blessing shared why this is so important because it’s not just dangerous online, it is positive too: young people go online to find resources and a sense of community when they feel isolated and alone. Highlighting the importance of mitigate the risks.
Busting the myth of the digital native
Dr Kira Allman – Senior Digital Strategy Officer, Manchester City Council – hit the nail on the head, saying “There is a powerful myth that pervades digital policies – that of the ‘digital native.’ That we don’t have to worry about young people because they’ll all be digitally included by nature of just growing up around technology in the digital age. But the reality is much more complicated than that, and we need to pay attention to how young people continue to be excluded, or to have negative experiences with digital technologies, because digital inequalities intersect with other kinds of inequality, racial, linguistic, socioeconomic, and so on. We need to think about the whole person who is engaging with the digital world. Young doesn’t mean included, just like old doesn’t mean excluded.” Kira reflected on how the Digital Youth Index is a start towards realising this broader understanding, drawing on experience from a referencing 2021 data in the UK Digital Poverty Evidence Interim Review.
This emphasised a theme from the day that drew on the way the Index considers the behaviours, attitudes, relationships, situations and contexts facing young people in the way it is made up of 5 pillars – wellbeing, safety skills, access and connectivity and safety. We were keen to ask the audience through a live poll – and they overwhelmingly agreed considering all pillars are important when approaching how to mitigate barriers for young people online.
We moved on to a panel Chaired by Shiona McCallum, BBC Senior Tech Reporter, featuring:
- Floriane Fidegnon-Edoh (Tech policy professional, Chairperson Stemette Futures Youth Board and Trustee at Stemette Future)
- Eilidh McLaughlin, Head of Digital Citizen Unit, Scottish Government
- Councillor Eamonn O’Brien (portfolio holder for Education, Skills, Work, Apprenticeships and Digital for the Greater Manchester Combined Authority)
- Elizabeth Rochford (Head of Social Impact, Virgin Media O2)
This group representing stakeholders across civil society, education, government, and the private sector highlighted the main theme of collaboration that “No single policy or organisation can fix all the problems young people face digitally.”
Drawing on the thread of online safety, Councillor Eamonn O’Brien reflected on the finding from the Index, such as that 95% young people feel safe online (with little change from 94% in 2021). “[The findings] tell us that young people feel very confident online, and that’s a good thing…that doesn’t necessarily mean we need heavy handed regulation around this. If young people are already feeling confident, then we’ve got to just make sure that they can then take steps in their own lives to manage what they see and limit some of the worst bits that that do crop up.” This sits in context of the reality that the Index tells us that minority groups are most vulnerable to seeing negative content online.
The context of the cost-of-living crisis brought to life another key theme around affordability. Elizabeth Rochford explained: “We’re increasingly in a digital first society… Access is critical to peoples’ lives so one of things as an industry we’ve called for recently is a cut to VAT on social tariffs to make them increasingly affordable. It’s all about trying to give as much option as possible and making it as affordable as possible.” Social tariffs are cheaper broadband and phone packages for people claiming universal credit where we know uptake remains a challenge. Some further relevant solutions have been called for in the recent release of recommendations from the Data Poverty All Party Parliamentary Group.
The future of talent
Eilidh McLaughlin focused the discussion on inclusion and some of the mindset shift we can make around norms, saying “Digital society is a reflection of our society. While in part we need to regulate online, what about our societal norms and how we think and act towards each other?… It’s about making sure that people all can come to the table. We have to listen to each other. We have to learn from each other – that’s part of agile methodology. It’s part of the Scottish put to service design. It’s part of user centered design. You’re always going to have a piece of the digital world that needs regulated because of online harm because it persists in our society already. What we need to be doing with our children and young people is talking to them about inclusivity as a concept for everybody, and how we accept each other as just human beings.”
Floriane Fidegnon-Edoh who works with Stemettes to inspire and support young women and non-binary young people in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths careers, said: “We’ve seen in recent years that the Internet is a powerful tool for agency, for social change, especially with Black Lives Matter and the climate crisis. Young people should be at the heart of those discussions. Being online for young people is not just about having access to the web, having access to social media. It’s about having agency to change the way in which we think, especially when we talk about the future of work in the future of [digital in] our society. It is the young people who spoke earlier today who will be facing the impact of those policy discussions.”
In this respect, inclusion entails: who builds tech impacts who uses it. Tech jobs are an opportunity for social mobility – or to increase your life chances – as Shiona reminded us, the average digital tech salary is twice that of an average household income and with UK tech vacancies at an all-time high of 870,000, the opportunities are growing.
Floriane went on to identify a gap in the UK where we are not equipped for the future of digital talent and a need to invest now for the longer term as Web 3.0 comes o fruition. “On the digital skills pieces we need to think about what’s the future of digital and online. We need to be working to ensure that young people have access to those advantages, to skills, regardless of whether they work in tech or not.”
We know from the Index that 57% young people are interested in an advanced digital career, but something isn’t landing to convert this motivation into pathways to employment. With only 18% of women pursuing degrees in tech-related subjects according to Girls Who Code, women still only hold around 17% tech jobs and just 4% of technology professionals are women of colour.
Our youth panel had some thoughts on this around practical barrier of devices and cost. Bella shared: “I’m not a techy… But a lot of my friends want to work in tech. The problem is they don’t have devices to learn at home and struggle to find opportunities like apprenticeships.”
Mirroring the DYI finding that over half of young people teach themselves digital skills, Joss is a proactive self-taught learner, but it’s not easy: “The main sticking point for me is the cost to involved with teaching myself. I don’t think there are as many accessible courses as that could be. I left school in year 7 and I was home schooled. My interaction with the digital world online felt different to what people were dealing with at school.” Joss Wellburn.
Wrapping up the discussion for the day, Councillor Eamonn O’Brien brought us back to the relevance of holding the discussion in Manchester in line with some of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority’s strategies and commitments in the digital inclusion agenda. “One of the challenges we found in Greater Manchester is that there is both a skills gap and a labour gap at times, so we’ve got to do more to grow our own [talent].”
“Just as you wouldn’t expect to teach a child to read without having access to a book. You can’t expect them to be part of that digital world without having access to the devices and the hardware and the software alongside it. It’s crucial that we start with those fundamental basics. At the heart of the Greater Manchester approach is a big ambition about being a global leader, this will only make Greater Manchester a truly special place, if it can be inclusive at the same time.”
Our audience took the last word with ideas for enabling young people to thrive in a digital world, emphasising the importance of open conversations, understanding and accountability to realise support, resilience, access and empowerment for young people.
For me personally, especially as a new mum to be, it felt reassuring to know that even though young people were not necessarily the designers of the digital realities they face day-in-day-out – they proved through this debate their interest and insightful contributions in shaping the future of digital society for the better.
So much more could be said, but for now we invite you to watch the recording for the full discussion. We welcome your feedback on the Index and the event as you join us in the ongoing dialogue at #digitalyouthindex on LinkedIn and Twitter.
Amy O’Donnell, Senior Programme Manager at Nominet and Youth Group Leader