The relationship between youth and digital technology has been at the center of the public discourse about digital culture, education and socialization in the last two decades. From the myth of the digital native to the alarms about cyber-bullying to the promotion of ed-tech and the debates about children digital rights young people have been situated by researchers, policy makers, and technologists as protagonists of the digital transformation. However, little is known about the role of young people in the digital economy, and how they are contributing with their social and creative activities to empower a vibrant and growing ecosystem. Youth, as the most connected population to the Internet, are participating in different ways in a rapidly evolving global digital economy according to the social, cultural and economic resources they have, and the geographic context where they live. Young people contribute to this economy and to the advance of information/surveillance capitalism through the activities and work they do on digital platforms, creating value, data, and information. As they continue to develop media practices in the networked ecosystem, many of them are also earning different kinds of capital motivated by different reasons and hopes.
What is the role of youth in the digital economy? How do they participate as economic actors? What are their economic activities and how do they vary across genre, race, and socioeconomic backgrounds? What types of online activities are empowering youth and allowing them to enhance their social, economic, and cultural status? What are youths’ motivations to participate in the digital economy? What are the skills that youth are developing as they grow up “working digitally”? The answers to these questions, and others, are explored in the new report “Youth and the Digital Economy: Exploring Youth Practices, Motivations, Skills, Pathways, and Value Creation,” published by the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. The report is the result of a multi-year collaboration between the Berkman Klein Center´s Youth and Media Team and the Nordic Center for Internet and Society, and includes three different essays (one about capital enhancing activities, one about hope labor, and one about collaboration), and a proposal for a research agenda. You can read more about it on the this medium post.
We have outlined a research agenda for investigating the relationship between youth and the digital economy, and have identified twelve interrelated research areas worthy of exploration. These areas can help us to understand youth online activity, including young people’s motivations, rewards, and skill development needs. Furthermore, these topics call attention to wicked problems we need to better comprehend in order to provide more equal opportunities to all youth regardless of their gender, race, social class and geographic context. Understanding structural inequalities, such as youth being in a position of relative disempowerment when competing against adults for market-share, and gaps in youth participation due to digital divides are critical for solving building a fairer and more just society.
- Youth as “prosumers.” Youth around the world are simultaneously users, consumers, and producers of digital content. “Prosumerism” (a combination of producer and consumer) raises questions around the impact of long-term exposure to hyper-consumerism and hyper-capitalism on youth, the offering of content and products at no cost, and the trend towards unpaid labor.
- Capital-enhancing activities. Young people’s online activities can generate different forms of capital that may not be economic — at least not at first. Sophisticated online engagement, such as savvy social media branding, can allow youth to cultivate social and cultural capital, which may eventually lead to economic capital gains.
- Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. The motivation to create, share and consume content may be driven by external rewards (e.g., seeking approval from peers, chasing fame, or earning money) or intrinsic factors (e.g., enjoyment, creativity, and a desire to develop skills). Future research could examine how positive motivational forces can be fostered and how they might change over time.
- Developing an economic mindset. We hypothesize that the interplay between evolving youth motivations and increased sophistication of online engagement may lead to youth cultivating an economic mindset.
- Short-term and long-term gains. Evolving youth perceptions of the short-term and long-term gains of their online engagement can help inform our understanding of how young people are managing the uncertainties presented by the digital economy (e.g., around future work security). For example, many youth are currently undertaking online activities for little to no compensation in the hope of future social or economic capital.
- Metrics of youth value creation. The activities youth engage in as they grow up as prosumers generate value (e.g., economic, cultural, and/or social) for platforms and services. However, there is a lack of public and private metrics to measure the creative and affective labor that youth are doing on digital platforms — particularly the work of millions who have not become influencers or celebrities.
- Collaboration and other socioemotional skills. Increasingly, a variety of stakeholders are recognizingthat it’s important for youth to develop a range of skills to thrive in the digital age, from collaboration to computer programming. The Youth and Media team’s Digital Citizenship+ (Plus) Resource Platform is home to a large number of learning activities for schools and other learning environments to help foster these skills.
- Young people’s position in the digital economy. An imbalanced power dynamic has emerged between corporate platforms and young users, whereby corporate platforms with for-profit business models mine young people’s user-generated content and personal data. Additionally, young people (like all users) may not be compensated for their labor.
- Digital labor, digital play. The lines between work and leisure, and work and play, are blurring, particularly in creative industry settings. Again, this raises emerging issues around future-of-work and labor rights, as youth “playbor” often benefits corporate platforms, but is not compensated.
- Youth and adults: Competition and collaboration. The power relationships between adults and youth are changing by virtue of youth mastery of digital tools and skills, and direct market access afforded by the digital economy.
- Supporting youth enterprise. Multiple stakeholders across the governmental, vendor, nonprofit, and other sectors are increasingly engaging with youth’s online entrepreneurial and consumer identities, self-brands, and lifestyles. While some governments are providing youth with programs and learning experiences (both in and out of traditional school settings) around digital economic life, some private organizations and institutions are seeking to foster direct youth participation in the digital economy through market-based interactions, and educational programs that promote learning pathways toward economic opportunity for youth.
- Parental guidance advised. Some parents are active “sharents,” using their children’s experiences to create and monetize content based on the parents’ or families’ lives. As the lines between the previously more private spaces of childhood, home, and school blur into the public sphere, the methods and motivating factors for translating youth experiences into economic value are rapidly evolving and require critical and ethical considerations on the part of the parents.