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Engaging Young People Online

It’s not unusual when I am presenting a talk on online engagement to encounter great enthusiasm from people who see this as the ideal way for engaging young people. There seems to be a rather naive belief, that because young people are on online and like to be online, if we just throw all relevant discussions online, they will instantly join in (or something like that). I only wish it was that easy.

The truth is the internet is such a broad and deep resource that simply putting information online will not attract anyone. Being there helps. It makes you available. But the real issue with engaging young people has always been they are not even vaguely interested in most of the issues adults want them to talk about. Or perhaps it is the way we frame those issues?

I thought it might be good to write about what might work for youth engagement and invite others to contribute to the discussion. To start this process I had a long discussion with my kids, two hours to be precise while I had them captive in the car on the long drive home from Sydney to Newcastle. The following points are what I learned about engaging young people:

10 tips for engaging young people:

1. Adults Don’t Get Kids

We might think we understand kids, but we don’t! We might remember being young ourselves and may understand where they are at psychologically and developmentally but we don’t get them. There is nothing more tragic than an adult (over 25) who thinks that they can commune as an equal with teenagers. Forget it. Of course, there are exceptions but it’s best to drop the ‘awesome’ ‘rad’ ‘wicked’ ‘sick’ and ‘squee’ from our vocabulary because you are probably some years out of date anyway.

2. You Can’t Buy Kid’s Engagement

Young people are similar to the rest of us in that they hate pop-ups and intrusive advertising. If you were thinking of getting to them via sidebar ads on Facebook then forget it.

3. Kids Like To Design Their Online Spaces

Young people want to design the environment in which they are online. They like to be able to make their own backgrounds. That’s why they favour sites that allow them some design control over the online space they inhabit.

4. Kids Like To Be Creative

There seems to have been a genuine move towards creativity. Video and photo sharing, fan fiction, role-playing and other creative pursuits including programming all seem popular. So perhaps your kids aren’t just wasting their time on the web. Rather they are growing their skills for future jobs that don’t yet exist.

5. Kids Want A Platform With An Instant Audience

Young people love micro-blogging and instant gratification – particularly when there might be a member of their favourite band reading their comments. That is why they gravitate to visual and easy-to-use platforms.

6. Kids Want Anonymity

Kids have been schooled in not giving out their personal details, so cumbersome sign-up forms will scare kids away from engagement.

7.  Social Perks Matter More Than Giveaways

Incentives to participate don’t have to rely on cash or goodies. Kudos on certain websites and improved social standing are equally treasured.

8. School Still Sux (to kids)

Be very wary of promoting an online engagement via a school. Kids are not likely to go anywhere near a website if they feel it is in any way associated with a school. The school remains rather uncool and if a site is promoted by a school, it is not a place most kids would want be. (I remember refusing to read some books at school, only to discover years later, that they are my favourite books!)

9. Kids Don’t Like To Be Silenced

All site moderation needs to have a personal element. Kids get quite upset and insulted by unexplained moderation. Sites that empower some users over others are despised for the arbitrary and inconsistent moderation that results.

10. Don’t Call Us Under 18s

No one likes to be called out on their age, and kids are equally sensitive to being pigeonholed. Kids know they are kids, they don’t need to be told so! According to my kids, anything tagged for under 18s ‘really sucks’. Under 25s might be OK, under the right circumstances, though.

Perhaps these points, true for my kids and their friends, aren’t universal but if there is some truth to them it crystallises the challenge of going online to engage young people.

My personal view is that young people, just like the rest of us, will engage if they are interested and will not bother if they aren’t. To make it interesting they have to feel empowered – that this is not just tokenism; and the issue has to relate directly to their lives. On the plus side, if you do manage to break through to young people in an engaging way, kids are more likely to spread the message across their social networks.

The key to effectively engaging young people is to view them as a unique target audience with their own needs, values, rules and rewards. The same questions that would be asked of consultation to adults should be asked of engagement with children; What are their needs? How are these needs being met? Just as you would’ve hated being spoken down to as a child, so do they. Communicate to kids as they deserve to be treated, with the respect of understanding where they are coming from and valuing their opinions, even if they may differ with your own.