Younger voices feel sidelined during the pandemic
Young people do not run the world.
In normal times, any work around young people and civic participation usually falls under one of two slightly paradoxical themes.
The first is getting more young people to engage with civic concerns, be that through policy or politics or volunteering or however else.
The second is getting people in positions of relative power to listen to the opinions of young people.
Covid-19, and lockdown, has been no different.
Last month the Northern Ireland Youth Forum (NIYF) published a report called Our Voices Aren’t in Lockdown, based on surveys of young people from around Northern Ireland.
The report tries to track with the experiences of NI young people over the past six months. As well as the broader findings about mental health and education – outlined below – one key message is about how the youth of NI feels disconnected from the decisions being made to tackle Covid-19.
Per the report: “A critical issue for respondents to the surveys was the perceived lack of engagement with young people. 72.5% of respondents feel that their voice has not been considered as important.
“Likewise, some 80% feel that decision makers are not listening and 88% felt that it is important that young people are part of the decision-making process.”
These findings do not mean that young people disagree (or agree) with the broad decisions being made around Covid-19. The issues are about participation, about co-design, and about feeling like not only do you have a stake in the matters of the day – but that you have a voice as well.
The two conflicting themes of young people and civic involvement are also positively related (another slight paradox). The feeling of having a voice is tied to an enthusiasm for engagement. Both agency and the sense of that agency are important.
This can be achieved in many ways. It is not simply about having politicians listen (although that is part of it). For instance, Ardoyne Youth Enterprise (AYE) is currently running a writing competition with author Paul McVeigh, on the theme of ‘Children of Lockdown’. This encourages self-expression and provides a listening ear for that expression.
The world is in flux. Youth engagement is vital. There are lots of ways to drive that forward and clearly more could be done.
Of course, Northern Ireland’s young people have far more on their mind than simply being heard. The NI Youth Forum findings show that.
Respondents were asked to identify different areas they considered to be key concerns arising from Covid-19 and lockdown.
A total of 72% pinpointed mental health and wellbeing as one of these concerns – the most frequently-raised issue – while 65% said boredom, 55% said education and learning, 45% isolation and loneliness, and 41% fear and uncertainty.
The report states that its findings mirror those from similar pieces of work. “For example, a YouCope survey identified that almost half of 16-to 24-year-olds without previous mental health problems reported high levels of depressive symptoms, with one in three saying they experienced moderate to severe levels of anxiety during lockdown.”
Another such example comes from Streetbeat Youth Project in Woodvale, which carried out its own survey in April focused mainly on North Belfast.
Streetbeat found that 44.8% of young people say their mental health is worse since lockdown was imposed, with 41.2% saying it was the same and 14.1% saying it has improved.
These figures are very similar to levels of anxiety. 43.6% of respondents told Streetbeat they have become more anxious since lockdown, 42.0% said it has remained the same, and 14.3% say they are less anxious.
The NI Youth Forum report has several recommendations.
Unsurprisingly, the include measures to amplify the voices of young people. One suggestion is a political press conference, similar to one held in Norway, where young people can ask questions of the First Minister and deputy First Minister.
NIYF Deputy Director Phil Glennon said: “The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated what was already a mental health crisis among young people. It is vital that the First and Deputy First Minister host a Youth Conference to ensure their voices are heard as Northern Ireland emerges from lockdown.”
A more long-term suggestion is a Northern Ireland Youth Assembly. Per the report, “Such an assembly was proffered back in 2011 but has yet to be fulfilled.”
The paper asks for clearer and more concise information from the government about Covid-19, and the social restrictions that stem from the virus, targeted specifically at young people and designed to address their particular concerns.
It notes that, because the virus broadly poses a lower risk to younger people, much of the public information has been tailored to hit elsewhere. While this is understandable, young people’s lives have been upended in similar ways to everyone else.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, NIYF would like to see greater support for education in the new normal of blended online and in-person learning, as well as improved support for mental health (a persistent issue in NI that predates the pandemic).
Maybe a lot of these findings are unsurprising. Of course, that makes them no less important.
The impact of lockdown on education and on mental health, for instance, are issues that have received much discussion over the past six months.
Not enough of that discussion has involved young people themselves. That needs to change.
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