Youth media projects matter because they give young people “a voice”. Funders, nonprofits and facilitators emphasise this as their goal; participants celebrate it. And standard-setters expect it: a 2006 guide by the Open Society Institute, a significant early philanthropic backer of youth media in the US, says a key feature is that it “conveys the authentic views and voices of young people”.
But whose view is being conveyed? One academic study looked at a project where young participants could explore any issue of importance to them. A surprisingly large number chose gang culture, even though few were directly affected by this issue. Facilitators, whose role includes helping participants to challenge stereotypical, negative media representations of youth, were in a difficult position. Do they stop them from making films about a certain topic if it appears they’ve chosen it out of a sense of obligation or a need to conform to expectations? Or do they respect this as their authentic voice? Youth voice, it turns out, can be “a double-edged sword”.
Young people’s creations are influenced by adults in other ways. Differing facilitation styles subtly shape whether there is more focus on process (where it’s more about learning or interacting, for example) or on product (where educators may speed up or intervene in the process to ensure a higher quality end product). Adults also choose which youth-made stories to celebrate and share, “subtly neglecting or devaluing” others. Often, that means films dealing with “issues” – the kind of things we adults apparently like to see youngsters speaking out about – get more airtime than comic films that, to us, look inappropriate or meaningless. And nonprofits are more likely to get funding for issues-based projects than for something apparently meaningless or even just creative for its own sake. Not surprising then, if young people pick up on this.
There are other issues with the idea of “giving a voice”: as many have pointed out, it implies that these people don’t have a voice to begin with, that they need someone to generously “give” them the opportunity to speak out. Many organisations prefer the term “amplify”; I like the OSI’s description of youth media as a “megaphone” with which they can advocate for themselves.
But how effective is that megaphone? Is anyone actually listening? It’s hard – as I know from previous experience – to find a decent-sized audience for youth-made media. Partly, that’s because many funders don’t include any budget for distribution and engagement. This might not matter, if the project is more about developing skills or community cohesion, say. But, as one academic writes, believing your voice will reach the right people is an “important motivator”, and in a culture that celebrates popularity, young media makers will end up disappointed if we overstate their ability to have their voice heard.
Academic research requires critical engagement, and – in exploring the issues above as part of an essay at the University of Kent recently – I find it’s tempting to veer too far towards criticism. I’m still a huge fan of getting people involved in storytelling in all its messy and unpredictable forms. I still believe, as many experienced researchers do, in the ability of adults to help young people onto pathways of “learning, connection and impact”, and to help them process and shape social justice stories in a way that is both empowering for them and accessible to their audiences. But “authentic voice”? It’s complicated. We need to be careful about what we claim, thoughtful about what we promise.
- Open Society Institute (2006). Investing in youth media: A guide for grantmakers.
- Blum-Ross, A. (2017). Voice, empowerment and youth-produced films about ‘gangs’, Learning, Media and Technology, 42:1, 54-73.
- Blum-Ross, A. (2015). Filmmakers/educators/facilitators? Understanding the role of adult intermediaries in youth media production in the UK and the USA. Journal of Children and Media, 9 (3), 308-324.
- Chan, C. (2006). Youth Voice? Whose Voice? Young People and Youth Media Practice in Hong Kong. McGill Journal of Education, 41 (3), 215-225.
- Levine, P. (2008). A Public Voice for Youth: The Audience Problem in Digital Media and Civic Education. In Lance Bennett, W. (Ed.), Civic Life Online: Learning How Digital Media Can Engage Youth, 119–138. Cambridge: MIT Press.
- Soep, E. (2007). Jumping for Joy, Wracking our Brains, Searching our Souls: Youth Media and its Digital Contradictions. Youth Media Reporter Vol 1, 102-109.
- Jimenez, C., Clark, L.S., Kennedy, H., Nisle, S., Engle, C., Matyasic, S., & Anyon, Y. (2021). The art of youthful restraint: negotiating youth-adult relations in digital media literacy, Learning, Media and Technology, 46:2, 190-203.
Photo by Sebastiano Piazzi on Unsplash