Q&A Esther Rozendaal:
Why do you think initiatives like Meta's Youth Experts Network are important?
Youth are still rarely asked to actively participate, talk, and decide when it comes to developing initiatives aimed at the fostering of their digital resilience and wellbeing. It is mainly adult professionals and policymakers who determine what’s best for them. Young people have a different perspective than adults, especially when it comes to digital media, and by engaging with youth, additional questions, needs, perceptions, and solutions become clear. The way youth see and experience their online world can enrich the perspective of adult professionals and policymakers and help them develop initiatives that really matter to young media users and creators. As a result, the initiative itself often has more impact.
Moreover, by participating, youth develop their talents, skills and competences. Meaningful participation makes them feel seen and that their opinion matters. When they are allowed to decide, one of youth's most basic needs is recognised: the feeling of having a voice and influence. It is an essential part of positive development and also a fundamental right according to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which calls for youth to be taken seriously.
How do you see the intersection of youth wellbeing and the online world?
Youth are growing up in an interactive digital society. This makes their lives easier and more enjoyable in many ways, and it offers them many opportunities. Research shows, for instance, that digital media can help them make contacts, deepen relationships, and form their identity. It can also encourage them to learn and grow and develop into active global citizens. Digital media can also have negative effects on youths’ lives and wellbeing - for example, research shows that the use of digital media, especially social media, can contribute to an increased risk of depression, anxiety symptoms, fear of missing out on things, and loneliness. The online world can thus be seen as a double-edged sword: it can have both good and bad consequences for youth wellbeing. This is also why it is so essential to empower them to benefit fully from the opportunities their online world has to offer them, while mitigating the risks it also poses.
Looking back on 2023, what is the main challenge you saw when it comes to youth online safety?
I believe one of the major challenges was (and is!) the growing threat of AI and other emerging technologies to youths’ well-being. Most of young peoples’ daily online interactions are driven by AI. Well-known examples are the smart algorithms that determine what entertainment and news content they face on social media, what music they listen to on their streaming services, or what online ads they see. This can be useful because it makes online experiences more personal and relevant, but also carries the risk of developing a limited worldview through filter bubbles and echo chambers, invasion of privacy through commercial data collection and profiling practices, and deception through exposure to disinformation. Moreover, a new digital divide threatens to emerge where some children benefit greatly from AI-driven online services, while others' engagement is limited due to low knowledge and skill levels or lack of access to the necessary equipment. This can lead to increased (social) inequality.
What is on your radar for youth online safety and youth wellbeing in 2024?
It is often assumed that youth online safety and digital wellbeing can be enhanced by investing in their digital media literacy: a set of competences a person needs to critically, effectively, and responsibly access, use, understand and engage with digital media of all kinds. For several years now, we have seen a huge growth in interventions aimed at strengthening children's and young people’s digital media literacy, such as teaching programs in schools. Those interventions usually focus on strengthening their media-related knowledge and skills. However, research has shown that having such knowledge and skills alone is not enough. Even when children and young people have the necessary media-related knowledge and skills, they often fail to act accordingly. This implies that increasing media-related knowledge and skills, for example through media education at school, will not automatically result in safe, healthy, and responsible online behavior. An important question is how to bridge this gap. In addition to media-related knowledge and skills, what do youth need to successfully seize the opportunities of the online world while dealing with its risks in a resilient way? This question, or rather finding an answer to this question, is on my radar for 2024.
What would be your advice for young people and their guardians when it comes to a safe and healthy use of social media?
Parents and guardians can play an important role when it comes to safe and healthy use of social media. By showing an interest in what their children do online and having conversations about online risks, parents can help them implement strategies to manage online risks. Open dialogue is important here. Children report that they gain a lot from their conversations with parents if those conversations are emotionally supportive and non-judgemental. It also helps if parents and guardians recognize digital resilience as a process of trial and error in which making mistakes is part of the process of learning. I would advise young people to practice being mindful media-users, meaning that they regularly check-in with themselves whether they are still mostly benefitting from being online or whether the potential risks, such as increased stress or negative self-image, are taking over.
What does "Digital Resilience" mean to you and why is it important to youth?
In my view, digital resilience is a dynamic process in which digital media users and creators adaptively apply strategies that help them mitigate the risks of the online world and make the most of its opportunities. This process can occur before, during, and after interaction with digital media. Strategies deployed before using digital media are often preventive in nature and aimed at preventing online risks (e.g., setting a strong password, using an antivirus app, setting a limit on screen time). Strategies used during interaction with digital media focus on mitigating and resolving online risks (e.g., critically reflecting on the trustworthiness of online information, reporting nasty posts on social media to the platform). Strategies used after using digital media usually focus on rebounding from online risks (e.g., retrospectively adjusting negative feelings created by online experiences, seeking help from others in an online bullying incident). Digital resilience is important for young people because it helps them grow up and thrive safely in today's digital society.
How is that something we can foster in our youth through education, policies, and other methods?
We know from scientific theory and research that for children and young people to behave resiliently online, they must not only have the media-related knowledge and skills needed to apply resilient strategies online, but also have the necessary cognitive skills (executive functions) to self-regulate their online behavior, be motivated to apply resilient strategies, and be enabled by the digital media platforms and social environment to do so effectively.
For interventions, such as media education programs in schools, this means it is important to focus not only on teaching media-related knowledge and skills, but also on strengthening the executive skills ("stop-and-think") and increasing the motivation young people need to engage with digital media in a resilient way. In increasing youth’s motivation to behave in a digitally resilient way, it is especially important to focus on autonomous motivation (feeling it as something I want to do, rather than something I have to do). For policy, it is key to focus on rules and guidelines that facilitate youth’s digital resilience, a good example of which is the above-mentioned Dutch Code for Children’s Rights.
To foster digital resilience in youth through education, policies, or other methods, it is crucial to include the perspective of youth themselves and take their perceptions into account. What do they themselves think is important to learn? And what interventions (e.g., education, policies, etc) do they think are appropriate?
What role do you see policymakers playing in youth online safety?
For policymakers, it is important to focus on rules and guidelines that facilitate children's digital resilience and that enable them to actively navigate the online world in a safe, healthy, and responsible manner. An example of such policies in the Netherlands is The Code for Children’s Rights. This code provides tools that help tech companies, and their designers and developers, understand and apply children’s rights when developing apps, games, smart devices, and other digital technology. Putting the best interests of the child first in all digital activities with an impact on children is the guiding principle in this code. By considering the best interests of children and their unique characteristics in the design of apps, games, smart devices, and other digital technology, risks are minimized, allowing children to fully benefit from the opportunities the online world has to offer. An overview of all ten principles and practical examples can be found here.
What role do you see for tech companies in continuing to better young people's experience on social media?
Research shows that there is a limit to the extent to which media and digital literacy can help children make the most of social media’s opportunities and guard against its risks. Even with high quality media and digital literacy education, it is very challenging for children to fully grasp social media, including the workings and effects of its AI-driven qualities, and use it safely and responsibly. Thus, the physical environment, among which are tech companies, should also support children in mitigating online risks.
Consequently, there lies an important responsibility with tech companies to develop products and services that consider children's development and comprehension and put their interests first. The Dutch Code for Children’s Rights provides practical guidance to help understand and apply children's interests and rights in tech products and services.
ThinkYoung is a not-for-profit organisation, aiming to make the world a better place for young people by involving them in decision-making processes and providing decision-makers with high-quality research on youth conditions. ThinkYoung conducts studies and surveys, makes advocacy campaigns, writes policy proposals, and develops education programmes: up to date, ThinkYoung projects have reached over 800,000 young people.
Meta is a tech company with apps that you may know, like Instagram or WhatsApp. We work hard to build online spaces where young people can learn, connect, create, and have fun. We want young people to enjoy our platforms and to be safe, so creating spaces for young people to have their say on the future of platforms like ours is crucial.