On Friday I had a fascinating and important meeting with Rosie Ferguson and Jim Minton from London Youth and Jane Slowey from the Foyer Federation talking about an asset based approach to service provision for young people. That meeting, and the publication of Generation Citizen by the National Citizen Service, got me thinking again about the way young people and their lives are often framed negatively; by the general public as well as organisations who support them and some parts of the media. Take a look at the way young people and their lives are represented in the press or on twitter any single day of the week. You would be forgiven for thinking everyone under 25 is in, or having trouble.
Whilst life for many children and young people is relatively straightforward, of course things are tough – and sometimes exceptionally tough – for some. Many young people have experiences that all of us would like to see a thing of the past in 21st Century Britain. Too often implicitly or explicitly we fail to also look closely at young people’s resilience and tenacity in the light of those challenges and at the contribution young people make to society through volunteering and social action.
To value the young people we must notice, celebrate and be excited about their contributions. It is of course right and important to focus on difficult experiences and challenges and to ensure those who experience inequalities and disadvantage get the help they need, but a focus on ‘the problems’ is not without its own set of problems and we must be aware of and mitigate against. The way debates and discussions are currently framed can send a message to young people that we perceive them, rather than their experiences as problematic and it can prevent us from learning about the multitude of ways young people navigate difficulty and challenge with significant success. It also ignores the huge potential of young people as well as the practical strategies they use that can be shared with others. Finally it perpetuates a culture that ignores the remarkable strengths and resilience young people consistently display.
At a recent conference about young people and the Internet one of the main sessions focused almost entirely about the ‘problems of the internet’. ‘Sexting’ featured highly amongst the list of concerns. Of course the Internet brings with it some problems but an exclusive focus on problems contrasts dramatically with many young people’s reality of the Internet and social media.
In recent months I have asked a lot of young people about ‘sexting’ and ‘selfies’. It seems to me there may be a growing gulf between the moral panic and the everyday reality of using social media and the Internet for many young people. When I talk about ‘sexting’ the single biggest thing young people say is we must trust them, provide good education and ensure they know where they can get help if they need it. Mostly they say they either feel or want help to feel in control and can navigate their path through with the right support.
Through these conversations I have learnt much about the practical ways young people respond to the challenge and opportunity of the Internet – recently for example I have learnt from young people how snapchat is used and how they were pleased a friend was punished because they deemed he had ‘broken the rules’ and they sought help. Many are also clear about the law and about their ‘digital footprint’ and if they are not clear, they know they need to, and want to learn about it.
Back at the conference I asked the panel what we are doing to learn from those young people who tell us they enjoy using the internet and social media without pitfalls or from those who are navigating their way through the pitfalls successfully alongside research that captures experiences of cyber bullying and harassment. The same question applies in many different areas of relationships, sexual health and safety online.
Yes we must hear and learn from young people’s bad experiences and provide robust and appropriate support for those who experience difficulty or challenge. Without underestimating how much we can learn when it all goes wrong and the immense hurt and pain of those involved, we must also do more to learn from the hundreds of thousands of young people who navigate the Internet, social media and their relationships and sexual lives successfully .
Think about how much more we can do, for example, to learn from those young people who really understand the concept of privacy and apply it to their daily lives; those who use snapchat without fear of others sharing their images without their consent; those who refuse to be constrained by gender and sexual stereotypes and manage any backlash with confidence; from those who use contraception and condoms well; from those who found Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) education was good enough; from young people who are happy with their first (and subsequent) sexual experiences; or from young people who are LGBT and confident in their gender or sexual identity?
If we don’t ask the questions which help us learn from success and happiness we won’t learn valuable lessons about personal and community strategies from countless young people who manage their lives – the good bits and the bad bits – with resilience, creativity and capacity for growth.
We continue to get better at learning from the positive at Brook, but we still have some way to go, but as with everything, knowing you need to get better at something is an important first step.