Children will vote in the next election and nobody knows what they think

The United Nations Convention for the Rights of the Child defines a child as any human being below the age of eighteen years. Therefore, children will be voting in the coming general election.

Amendments to the Constitution first in 2014 and later in 2018, allowed persons as young as 16 years old, to vote. After they voted to elect local councils and later representatives in the European Parliament, the next general election will be the first to include voters aged below 18 years.

In an attempt to involve these new voters, the major political parties both extended their membership criteria to include children as young as 14.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong in these developments albeit their actual effects on the quality of the democratic process are yet to be studied. For the time being however, they merely resulted in an extension of the electorate.

Whilst they are possibly detected in national polls that are regularly published, this is hardly a detailed understanding of young voters’ thoughts, concerns, and ideas. It is interesting to know whether young people are planning to vote and whether they have made up their mind on which party and candidates to support but such polls provide very limited insight into their minds.

Picking young people’s minds (scientifically) on many an issue could be an invaluable instrument for any policy area that seeks to remain relevant for the not so distant future.  

This country currently lacks the right tools to talk to children and more importantly to listen to them. We still lack the right platforms that provide children a much-needed voice. Informal initiatives run by non-profit organisations are a good starting block but there is no public entity accountable to see to the delivery of any emerging recommendations. Nevertheless, civil society is best positioned to create safe spaces and channels for ceaseless dialogue with the young generation on which present and future policy may be constructed.

We still lack the right platforms that provide children a much-needed voice.

In today’s world, information is largely consumed in the digital realm. This is especially the case for young persons. A study published this year confirms that even locally, the 16-24 age group is the one mostly present on digital platforms or social media, most of them for at least 3 hours per day with some scrolling screens for nearly 8 hours in one day. Teens and young adults were found to be getting their news and information mainly from online sources.

Given the algorithmic patterns of digital platforms litter newsfeeds with content the user is more likely to engage with, so called echo chambers and fake news raise new questions we ought to answer. It seems clearer than ever that notwithstanding the troubled level of public debate in the real or physical world, we did very little to foster healthier and more informed debate in the virtual world.

The dangers afflicting young digital users are not limited to sexual abuse, bullying and hate speech. While these are all reprehensible and amount to crime, disinformation is, damaging, especially in a democratic setting and in relation to participants in a society which could objectively qualify as ‘vulnerable’. 

In the digital realm too, we lack the necessary tools to protect children determinately. Self-regulated platforms have yielded more addicted than well-informed youngsters. Protection here does not and should not strictly refer to ‘freedom from’ peril, or sheltering, but should also include ensuring access to adequate information and a space to share their views. The right (digital) tools are necessary to guarantee children their freedom to participate fully in a safe space empowered by age-appropriate content.

Amid a worldwide health crisis, undeniable signs of Climate Change and a fourth industrial revolution, happenings whose implications will surely transcend generations, it is not merely symbolic that children – the new generation – are able to leave their mark. Fully integrating children into our polity could start fuelling the right dose of change steering us in the right direction.

Fresh minds are in order but lacking the basic platforms to listen to children’s voices does not necessarily guarantee we are aware of what lies in them. The chances will remain very limited, unless the appropriate environment, both ‘physical’ and digital, is set, through the right tools, enabling us to listen to children’s views and empowering them to participate fully.

Allowing children to enter the setting of old, made by older people for older people, is not very inviting of change.

‘Children’ here is not used loosely. As much as it may not appeal to the taste of a young person midway through their teens, it is factual and the most accurate term encapsulating the whole cohort in question.

Children and young persons are not passive bystanders waiting for their turn to life. They are students, workers, organisers, consumers, commuters, artists, athletes and patients. This is why all of their views actually matter.

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