It’s time for a Greta Thunberg for technology

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Younger generations can offer unique insights into challenges posed by digitalisation. [Dmytro Zinkevych/Shutterstock]

Digitalisation has produced new challenges ranging from cybersecurity vulnerabilities and disinformation to gaming addiction and cyberbullying. Younger generations offer unique insights into these challenges but find themselves on the margins of EU policy debates, writes Laura Groenendaal.

Laura Groenendaal is the Europe program assistant at The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF).

While young climate activists are crowding Brussels streets again on March 6, youth engagement in cyber and technology issues remains very limited. Young digital activists can learn from the climate movement to create more awareness about their issues among younger generations and increase their engagement in the policy debate.

Youth engagement in cyber and technology is important, because youth is particularly vulnerable to negative aspects of digitalization such as disinformation, cyberbullying, sexual solicitation and grooming, pornography and other harmful content.

One out of four European children (ages 9-16) had a negative online experience in 2019. The time that children spend each day online has increased over the last decade, but many never received any online safety advice from parents, teachers or friends.

Despite the rise of parental control apps, most parents are still struggling to supervise and protect their children online. Psychologists have also pointed to the rise of mental illnesses such as addiction, eating disorders and narcissistic behavior among younger generations that coincide with the advance of the internet and social media.

To protect the well-being of our youth, we need to take into consideration their experiences and perspectives.

Paradoxically, younger generations are also very well-equipped to provide new ideas and solutions for digital challenges. EU citizens ages 16-24 are found to be the highest internet and social media users in our society and possess more digital skills than their older counterparts.

Children also go online at a younger age due to the introduction of touch screens and icon driven tablets and own their first digital device such as a mobile phone earlier. This exposure to technology at an increasingly younger age leads to new generations of tech-savvy students and young professionals with unique insights into the potential of emerging technologies.

At a time when policy-makers in Europe are struggling to develop policy responses to fast-paced digital innovation, new ideas and insights – especially from younger generations – are more needed than ever.

There is, however, a remarkable lack of youth engagement in cyber and technology policy in Europe.

Recent years have shown some change through the rise of youth forums such as the Youth Internet Governance Forum (Youth IGF) and Youth Dialogue on Internet Governance (YOUthDIG), platforms that strengthen youth engagement through peer-learning and networking, and prepare youth representatives prior to official meetings to maximize their influence.

But youth representatives report lacking a systematic approach, question their impact on policy and fail to reach out beyond a small group of motivated youth representatives. To improve this, young digital activists can draw three lessons from the climate movement.

Common purpose and narrative

The climate “FridaysForFuture” movement urges policy-makers to act on the climate crisis to protect the future of younger generations by preventing a global 2-degree Celsius temperature rise. Youth organizations and activists in the field of cyber and technology are missing such a clear purpose and narrative.

Instead, they focus on multiple issues separately, such as digital rights, cybersecurity and resilience, and online content. To motivate and mobilize a larger group of younger people and convey a cohesive message to policy-makers, young digital activists should develop a single narrative around the purpose of creating a free, open and secure cyberspace for current and the future generations.

This overarching narrative should be simple to understand to also win the support of young people without a technical background and allow the different issues that youth organizations and activists are working on to be weaved into it.

Creating an identity

“FridaysforFuture” also creates an identity for its supporters that is characterized by a green lifestyle including a vegetarian or vegan diet, minimal consumerism and regular protests.

This lifestyle makes it easier to identify members of the movement, adds to its branding, and attracts younger people, especially teenagers, to join the movement by creating a feeling of belonging and being part of a group. In the field of technology and cyber, however, there is no such identity. Instead, the movement is scattered and consists of many smaller initiatives spread across different member states.

Youth activists should create a common technology-aware identity that could be characterized by regular get-togethers online and/or offline (“Thursdays for Technology”) and a lifestyle that would revolve around awareness raising, a critical attitude toward technology and cyber hygiene habits.

Role model

Finally, the young climate movement has become so successful because of Greta Thunberg. She has given the movement a face to rally behind and serves as a relatable role model for many young activists.

Greta has managed to inspire and mobilize millions of climate protesters. Through her, young people have received a voice and managed to pressure policy-makers to address the climate crisis.

Cyber and technology youth organizations and activists need to find a young charismatic role model who serves as the face of the movement, raises awareness for cyber and technology issues, and motivates and mobilizes young people.

An influential role model would enable to movement to make an impact by putting cyber and technology high on the policy agenda.

Cyber and technology directly affect the daily life and future of younger generations, but youth organizations and activists fail to impact policy.

To get youth engaged to strive for a free, open and secure cyberspace for current and future generations, young digital activists need to develop a common purpose and narrative, identity and role model similar to the climate movement. It is time for a Greta Thunberg for technology.

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