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Youth Aren’t Just the Internet’s Future, Youth Shape the Internet’s Future

For the past 27 years, or at least as long as I can remember, I have heard one phrase on an endless loop: “youth are the future.” It is a statement that always caused me to feel mild confusion. I thought, “How can I, for instance, be the future if I’m here now?” As I “grew up” and the term “youth” seem to expand in both meaning and breadth of inclusion, I quickly realized that when this statement is used by many it is platitudinous at best and disingenuous rhetoric at worst. What should actually be clarified is that, as no one is immune from the natural progression of the life course (at least not yet anyway), youth will one day constitute the key decision-makers in political, economic and social institutions. However, what should also be emphasized is such a future does not have to involve the passing of a generation, but should be fostered now. Youth are not simply the future, they are the present, and investment in youth leadership today is what will pave the road for a better tomorrow.

After attending the 10th Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Joao Pessoa, Brazil, in November, I was reminded of why youth voices should be more included in Internet governance processes. At the IGF specifically, there was a large youth delegation, specifically from the Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) region, as well as various youth-focused events such as the Youth Coalition on Internet Governance (YCIG) Dynamic Coalition (DC) meetings. While I was not directly involved either at or before the IGF with the YCIG, seeing the passion, professionalism and energy of my fellow youth delegates inspired me to get involved and advocate more strongly for youth-centric inclusion. And with the World Summit for the Information Society 10-year review (WSIS+10) commencing next week, it could not have come at a better time.

This past week, I worked alongside members of the YCIG to help draft the YCIG WSIS+10 statement, which summarizes multiple youth declarations and provides recommendations for how the WSIS+10 outcome document can be strengthened, particularly with a focus on youth inclusion. One of the key recommendations is incorporating language that emphasizes multistakeholder practices as opposed to multilateral ones. Indeed, the entire WSIS+10 process represents a key opportunity for youth, as multistakeholder models of governance can ensure youth voices are heard as well as incorporated into decision-making processes. Moreover, the YCIG supports the IGF in providing an equalizing platform across stakeholder groups, and seeks the renewal of its mandate to continue multistakeholder collaboration and policy discussions—especially as the next billion people come online. This is especially pertinent as youth constitute more than one-seventh of the world’s population—more if considering those under the age of 30.

Involving youth in Internet governance processes also means mobilizing active citizens who are highly engaged in online spaces. To put youth engagement into perspective, youth contribute more than $35 billion per year in volunteer hours as well as are more likely than any other age group to have informally volunteered. This translates to countless hours of an untapped resource not contributing to the fullest of their ability as decisions are made that affect, among other things, their browsing habits, online security, access, e-commerce activities, civil liberties and offline lives.

The YCIG statement also stresses the importance of digital and media literacy education and capacity building in order to include individuals in Internet discussions and further shrink the digital divide. For youth voices to be heard, young people, especially those in the Global South, must be trained in how to use the tools that are or will soon be at their disposal. The need for such training also highlights critical opportunities for the collaborative potential that exists between youth and established professionals and organizations in the Internet governance community. Youth involved in Internet governance processes can benefit immensely from experienced professionals’ strategy, guidance and mentoring, while youth offer energy and new ideas often without being limited by time constraints or multiple commitments. Internet governance organizations can also have an important role in expanding youth development and capacity building programs at the local, national and regional levels.

While youth and young leaders will undoubtedly need and benefit from institutional support, youth themselves should also step up and see how they can contribute to the information society that they are currently shaping by accessing the Internet, creating content, using information and communication technologies (ICTs) and so much more. We can empower change ourselves, and working together in solidarity with both other youth as well as those who have the experience, resources and networks youth lack will create a more open and democratic Internet. Idealism aside, with the information society comes the ripe opportunity for youth to take an active role in ensuring the future reflects how we as individuals within a network of societies want it to be.

On second thought, maybe I was wrong with regards to the opening of this essay. Maybe when “we” were told we were the future, it was not an appeal to parents to think of “us,” but rather a rallying call for us young people to realize our own future by proactively directing the course of humanity in a way that can better benefit the generations to come.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author in his private capacity. This essay does not constitute an official statement from the YCIG nor is it officially endorsed by the YCIG.

By Michael J. Oghia, ICT Sustainability Advocate

Michael J. Oghia is a Belgrade-based independent consultant, researcher & editor working within the Internet governance ecosystem on sustainable access, digital rights, media literacy, and development & capacity building. He specifically focuses on the relationship between the Internet, the environment, and sustainability. Twitter: @mikeoghia

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