Online services and technology offer many opportunities for children and young people to communicate, find information, be entertained and develop their digital skills. However, many online services used by young people were never designed with them as the core audience.
The current generations of children online are those belonging to Generation Z (born between 1995 and 2010) and Generation Alpha (born since 2010). Research by McCrindle from 2019 suggests that these generations are very different to previous generations of children in terms of leadership models and learning styles, with a preference for collaboration and multi-modal working, including virtually.
Consequently, today’s children and young people have a natural desire to work in collaboration with others and have lived most (if not all) of their lives in a world of connected technologies and digital services. They can bring a unique perspective to the development of digital products and services, both present and future. They also have a strong desire to be involved in the process of creating and shaping the online services that affect their daily lives. Enabling youth participation to shape the digital future is of paramount importance, as Lili, a BIK Youth Ambassador from Austria, emphasises:
Youth participation should not be a choice, but a must. Today's decision-makers, some of whom have grown up without a hint of digitisation, are shaping the future of today's youth without listening to their ideas, wishes and plans. The future is being led by people who do not understand and live our new worldview. Only the right mix of generations can shape the future as we all imagine it to be.
Involving children and young people in matters that affect them, giving them meaningful involvement and a voice should never be considered as optional: they are fundamental rights, laid out in both the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (article 12) and the EU Charter of Fundamental Human Rights (article 24). More recently, the European Commission’s proposal for a Digital Decade and the new EU Strategy on the Rights of the Child, and the General Comment No 25 on children’s rights in relation to the digital environment from the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, all published in the course of March 2021, have placed a further spotlight on these rights. Therefore, online service providers should actively look for ways to enable the voices of their younger users in shaping the service to meet their needs and serve the best interests of children.
What is meaningful youth participation?
The Lundy Model of Participation (2007) developed by Laura Lundy, Professor of international children's rights at the School of Education at the Queen's University of Belfast, provides a way to enable meaningful participation with youth. It is intended to focus decision-makers on four distinct factors while also recognising the relationship between these factors and their chronological order.
Figure 1. The Lundy Model of Participation as included in Ireland's National Strategy on Children and Young People's Participation in Decision-Making 2015-2020 (Department of Children and Youth Affairs, 2015).
In chronological order, these factors are:
- Space: Meaningful engagement of children and young people in decision making requires safe and inclusive space in which they are encouraged to express their views.
- Voice: Children and young people must be supported to express their views, often through access to child-friendly documentation and information.
- Audience: Children and young people’s views must be listened to and they must have the opportunity to communicate their views to an individual or body with a responsibility to listen.
- Influence: Children and young people’s views must not only be listened to but also taken seriously. They should be told what decision was made, how their views were regarded, and the reasons why action has proceeded in a certain way.
Using youth participation in age-appropriate design
For Safer Internet Day (SID) 2020, a high-level European Commission event was held in Brussels to launch the Youth Pledge for a Better Internet initiative, focusing on how to make online platforms and services more age appropriate for children and young people. The BIK Youth Ambassadors involved in the initiative identified data privacy and protection as a key focus. As part of this initiative, they encouraged industry members of the Alliance to better protect minors online to work with young people through the #Pledge2Youth challenge to improve current data privacy policies and practices and consider age-appropriate design.
Six Alliance industry members took part in the #Pledge2Youth challenge: Facebook/TTC Labs, the LEGO Group, Samsung, Sulake, SUPER RTL and Twitter. The table below briefly outlines the focus, aims and methodology of the six challenges.
- Facebook/TTC Labs: Focused on transparency and control, age-appropriate safeguards, and age verification. The aims were to make data policies and privacy controls easier to understand, strengthen privacy for young people and explore fair and balanced age verification systems. These areas were explored through Design Jam one-day events, virtual global roundtables and the Facebook Youth Ambassador programme.
- The LEGO Group: Focused on the communication of data protection and privacy protection policies. The aims were to identify the best ways to communicate privacy policies and procedures to young people and how to empower users to make positive decisions around privacy. These areas were explored through in-home qualitative research with parents/carers and children, and comprehension and co-creation sessions. The LEGO Group adopted a child-centric approach throughout its work.
- Samsung: Focused on privacy settings on Samsung devices, awareness of online safety risks in young people and the well-being of Samsung device users. The aims were to help parents/carers and young people understand Samsung device privacy settings and to raise awareness of online safety issues such as fake news, negative online behaviour and digital wellbeing. These areas were explored through a combination of offline and online workshops and the use of local education partners in four target countries to enable access to a range of children and young people.
- Sulake: Focused on users’ understanding of terms and conditions (T&Cs), and the visibility of these on Sulake services such as Habbo and Hotel Hideaway. The aims were to empower users to make informed decisions by increasing the transparency and visibility of the T&Cs, as well as to consider ways to both simplify the T&Cs and increase user engagement with them. These areas were explored though co-creation sessions within the Habbo game environment.
- SUPER RTL: Focused on users’ understanding of data collection, giving consent for data collection and the level of parental involvement in data collection decisions. The aims were to discover what children understand about data collection and data protection, and to explore ways to redesign the TOGGO Radio consent form to aid understanding and accessibility. These areas were explored through SUPER RTL’s UX Labs where children were consulted frequently at all stages of the design process.
- Twitter: Focused on developing media literacy and digital empathy in Twitter users, including young people. The aims were to design and run campaigns to raise awareness around media literacy and digital empathy and to empower young people to develop critical thinking skills and digital resilience. These areas were explored through training sessions and monthly online discussions with BIK Youth Ambassadors and awareness sessions with young people.
What were the outcomes?
The collaboration between Alliance industry members and BIK Youth Ambassadors resulted in a range of different consultation styles. Due to the restrictions imposed in many countries as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many consultation sessions and workshops ended up taking place online. Despite these restrictions, Alliance industry members were able to create safe and engaging spaces for young people to share their views. Hadia, a BIK Youth Ambassador from the UK, found the safe space created by Facebook to be extremely beneficial:
The roundtable offered an open dialogue where I felt comfortable to discuss concerns pertaining to digital safeguarding and literacy; it was an invaluable insight to listen to experts and understand the process of decision-making in policies that directly impact the youth.
Alongside a safe space, some members provided training or workshops to support young people to build their capacity to have a voice and express opinions about products and services. Racquel Alvarez, Customer Experience & User Safety Director at Sulake, found the process of working with youth to be enjoyable, as well as valuable:
As well as being funny and creative, the direct, inclusive, team-based approach of the young people I worked with was extremely refreshing. The experience has given my team and I real insight into how our products can better serve the needs of our players.
All of the participating Alliance industry members worked directly with the BIK Youth Ambassadors; there was no use of any third-party research companies or organisations. Therefore, all of the youth participation activities provided a suitable audience for young people to express their views to. Some Alliance members found that the results of their youth participation process actually gave them greater insight into other users of their products and services, as Francesco Falco, CSR Regional Manager at Samsung explains:
Working with young people gave us precious insights on how they perceive the involvement of parents and carers in their digital lives. They don’t want to be controlled but rather establish an open dialogue with adults and receive support when they are facing issues.
Of the four key areas of Lundy’s Model of Participation, influence is the hardest to appraise in the youth participation activities that took place. Some Alliance members (such as Sulake and The LEGO Group) have very close relationships with their engaged and impassioned user bases and therefore may be able to adapt their products and services effectively to meet the needs of those particular users. SUPER RTL has an established model for engaging with children through their design process and can assess the impact at each stage.
Other services, such as Twitter and Facebook, have a much wider user base that consists of young people, as well as a wide range of adults; Facebook users aged 13-17 actually make up less than 6 per cent of the total user base on the Facebook platform. Any changes made to these services to benefit young people would also be weighed up against the impact on adult users, although it is hoped that what is of benefit to younger users would be of benefit to all users, particularly regarding safety.
A further online event on the occasion on Safer Internet Day 2021 provided an opportunity to review progress made on the Youth Pledge initiative over the course of the year.
Youth participation at the Safer Internet Forum 2020
Alongside the #Pledge2Youth challenges, the BIK Youth Panel 2020 also worked in six small groups to consider key issues around the internet, particularly issues around access, disabilities, equality and ethics. Each group created a short film to highlight their thoughts and opinions around their chosen issue, alongside tips for young people and recommendations for change.
While these activities did not take place in collaboration with industry, the breadth of issues covered in the films serve as a timely reminder to all key stakeholders (such as policy makers, tech companies, non-governmental organisations and academia) that there are issues other than general online safety and privacy that young people have concerns about. These inspiring films can be viewed on YouTube.
The BIK Youth panellists presented these short films at both a separate side event with members of the Alliance to better protect minors online and during a side event at the Safer Internet Forum (SIF) 2020, held virtually due to pandemic restrictions. On both occasions, young people were able to express their views and opinions to Alliance industry members, as well as pose key questions to members about how their services could be adapted to better meet the needs of youth.
Other considerations for meaningful youth participation
The activities between Alliance industry members and BIK Youth Ambassadors highlight the immense benefits and opportunities that engaging in meaningful youth participation can bring to the tech and internet industry in shaping their products and services, not only to further meet the needs of their youth users but to benefit the entire user base.
However, this process does not happen naturally – it requires clear planning, direction and execution to ensure that the involvement of children and young people is meaningful. Success relies on strategic thinking in both the short term and long term, as well as carefully-considered communication to ensure that children and young people can actively participate and understand the impact of their participation.
Representation is another key area of consideration – finding ways to work with young people who reflect an online service’s user base will result in better outcomes for all users. There may be challenges around accessibility (such as additional needs or disabilities) that need to be overcome to enable young people to meaningfully contribute and be heard.
It is also important to move away from the mindset of “it’s too difficult/complicated/expensive” when considering how to adapt products and services to meet the needs of young people. There will always be limitations on what can be achieved, but maintaining a positive optimistic approach ensures that young people feel that they and their input are valued, and that the lines of communication and collaboration remain open for the future.
Further information on the collaboration between members of the Alliance to better protect minors online and BIK Youth Ambassadors is available in a best-practice guideline titled Age-appropriate design with youth, including more extensive case studies from the industry participants. Additionally, the Better Internet for Kids (BIK) platform provides up-to-date information and advice for everything related to children and young people's online safety and wellbeing, in Europe and beyond.