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Young people are the world's greatest untapped resource

Young people are the world's greatest untapped resource

By Jackie Edmond, Chief Executive, Family Planning

Recently I was talking with a group of people about the growing issue of internet harassment, and in particular, gender based online abuse. We talked about how online violence directed at women is a symptom of deep-seated gender inequality, and just one more way that women and girls are denied their human rights.

This group had many great ideas on what can be done to tackle this online violence, and a unique way of looking at the issue. But despite the fact this group had so much knowledge to contribute, they probably won’t lead the way on this, and other topical issues, that directly affect them. This is because the group I spoke with were young people.

Young people, particularly teenagers, have historically had little opportunity to share their knowledge, insights and perspective. They have been poorly represented, or often just overlooked, in policy decisions, funding allocations and service provision.

Our future: a Lancet Commission on adolescent health and wellbeing quoted Richard Horton saying "Adolescents…the most pervasively neglected group in global health" and I’d have to agree. We hear so much about the importance of the first 1000 days of a child’s life, but when it comes to adolescence we seem to hear only about negative behaviours and startling statistics.

Young people are often labelled as risk-takers, unprepared for their future, and worse off than the generation before them. With easily accessible porn, new drugs like P on the street and evidence of rape culture in schools, it’s easy to believe this is true.

But did you know that in reality young people are actually waiting longer to start having sex, and teen pregnancy is on the decline?Actually, young people are engaging in less risky behaviours, like smoking, drinking and drug use, in general.

That’s not to say things are perfect. When you talk with young people about their lives, what they struggle most with, and what they hope for - you quickly get a better idea of what’s on their plate. Mental health struggles and bullying - in particular in the form of digital harassment - are among some of the real issues our young people are facing.

But young people are aware of these challenges, eager to engage and want to talk.

We need to support them to do that and recognise how much they know, how capable they are and how much they have to contribute. Our next generation promises to be more inclusive, more just, more socially aware than any generation before them. Just look at the recent action on climate change led by our young people.

Issues around sex and sexuality are still sometimes considered off-limits for young people by adults, despite young people being bombarded with sexualised media in magazines, TV, movies, music videos and more. There is still an unreasonable fear that if you talk about it, they’ll do it.

But fortunately, there is some evidence that the views and needs of young people around sex and sexuality are increasingly being considered. A New Zealand Youth and Porn survey by the Office of Film and Literature Classification asked young people about their experiences with online pornography. Many said they had seen violent and disturbing sexual depictions and most teens thought that some form of online restriction was a good idea.

Family Planning recently asked young people to share their thoughts in a survey on sexuality education in school. There was remarkable agreement among respondents that there should be more in-depth, comprehensive education in school on relationships and sexuality.

And New Zealand's proposed Child and Youth Wellbeing Strategy has included young people taking a positive approach to relationships, sexual health and reproductive choices as one of the desired outcomes for the framework. Government acknowledged that children and young people have the right to be included in the decision-making about their own wellbeing.

A summary report of a public engagement process that asked children, young people and adults about their views on wellbeing found that "being listened to" was mentioned by children and young people as one of the things that could help them have a good life. Many of the children and young people who contributed their ideas, stories and opinions were grateful for being asked, and for many it was the first time they had been asked or felt they were being heard.

Young people - faced with all of the challenges and promise that the future holds - must be included as stewards of society moving forward.

If you listen to them, young people are telling us what they need to feel happy, healthy and informed. So perhaps this year on Youth Week, we stop talking about our young people and start talking with them?


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