How are digital technologies affecting youth globally? In what ways do they experience and envision the harms and benefits of artificial intelligence (AI)? How can we create digital futures that truly serve and respect younger generations? These are questions that parents, lawmakers, and civil society groups around the world are wrestling with every day. But, too often, critical voices are missing from the conversation — the youth themselves.
For the last several years, I’ve been on a quest to answer these questions by engaging with young people through the initiative JAAKLAC, a nonprofit devoted to digital education. Here’s what I’ve learned:
The digital ecosystem affects the lives and futures of children and young people in different ways. However, local and global digital agendas privilege adults’ interests and economic growth as main drivers. In dialogue with youth from around the world, their visions on the positive impact of tech on our health, economy, and social development have broadened my perspectives. I have also been inspired by their strategies to harness digital technologies for advocacy applied to solve local and global problems.
For the purpose of this article, we invited George Vella, Umi Said, and Sandra Ruhizi from Malta, Kenya, and Tanzania, respectively, to speak about their interactions with AI technologies. They are civically engaged around issues of sexual and reproductive education, mental health, farmer women empowerment, and child counseling on the use of technologies for community advancements. When asking them to co-write this article, we shared some prompts to discuss the main views, concerns, and ideas for better digital societies.
Soledad Magnone: In what ways are digital technologies, the internet, and AI relevant to you, your country, or community? Which tech developments are you looking forward to, and why are these relevant?
Umi Said: Digital technologies and AI are developing at a fast pace, becoming more advanced every single day. These are relevant as they occur alongside an exponentially growing population, provide accuracy in handling documents and data, and easing human labor.
For instance, with the integration of AI and digital technologies, young people accessing health services would be able to get them at a fast rate, considering that records will be stored in devices that are accessible online. This also helps young people in accessing services from where they are or where they want with minimal or no risk of stigma. For example, During the COVID-19 pandemic, it was hard for young people to seek sexual and reproductive health services as interaction was minimal with lockdowns in most places. Technology helped to ensure that those critical services were available from where a person was. In Kenya, One2One website under the LVCT Health nonprofit enabled young people to seek knowledge on different matters such as gender-based violence, mental health, menstruation, love, and HIV. The website accommodated online users while there were also free phone text messages, chatbots, and calls for those without internet. The website also provided a certified counselor to interact with young people, as per the method they chose, either messaging or calls.
Other youth benefits from AI regard schools having less work as technology could be programmed to do some heavy tasks such as marking students’ tests or even training skills in a live session. Moreover, with the introduction of AI in more public activities, such as voting online, it would encourage more people to participate. Services being provided by the government would also be enhanced to be more people-friendly
George Vella: I tend to be quite conservative when it comes to digitizing elections at all, let alone trusting AI with the very important democratic task that elections are. Voting online, whilst it would be more convenient, can also create a vast number of problems. As a Maltese person, where an 85 percent voter turnout was seen as a dangerously low number in our last election, I believe that people tend to trust the system more when everyone can see the sealed boxes being moved to a counting hall and volunteers counting the actual ballots. How would you explain to the everyday person why they should trust AI or end-to-end encryption? To break an election, you don’t need to physically break it — you just need to cast enough doubt on the results. For example, with deep fakes and AI voices becoming quite convincing is something that makes me feel quite uncomfortable. This just shows how lawmakers and policymakers need to act quickly or risk being too late on legislation regarding AI.
Sandra Ruhizi: Digital technology has led to many great innovations in my country and the whole world. Through AI, technology helps doctors identify viruses and also treat people with cancer and other diseases. In my country, digital technology has led to many solutions to social problems, like creating a safe way for people to save their money and check their balances and security for personal information. Since COVID-19, the usage of digital technology has grown rapidly, and now even children have this skill of creating applications, which is a good sign for the future. Apart from digital technology growth, there is still a big gap in how to use the technology better. For example, these changes led to many mental effects in youth and children due to a failure to balance the use of technology and reality. Furthermore, there is still a need for many youth who live far from cities to be given the opportunity to use digital technology and create amazing innovation for the changes in their society.
Soledad Magnone: How can we create better digital futures? In which ways can digital technologies contribute to this?
Umi Said: Most of the time, children and youth are being deprived of technologies as most people from the community perceive it as a tool to mess up young people’s future. Conservative adults view digital technologies, for example, smartphones, as tools which waste the time and productivity of a young person. This is all as a result of our parents and the community members at large not having the right information on digital technologies and AI. Young people need a broader perspective to see and understand that despite the shortcomings of these digital technologies, there are also more strengths that, when properly utilized, outweigh the shortcomings.
George Vella: Despite my opposition to including AI in elections, I’m quite excited about the rate at which AI is growing. AI language models such as GPT-3 and AI chatbots such as ChatGPT have been an amazing addition to my workflow. As a student, I’ve used them to help me generate ideas for my scholastic coursework and also to help me condense some of my long writing tasks. On the other hand, I’ve also used them for personal projects, such as fixing bugs within code I’ve been working on and even playing a Choose Your Own Adventure-style game based on the Cold War. I honestly think that AI’s potential is far from what we’ve currently seen, and can’t wait to see future advances. What we’re currently experiencing is what Napster felt like in the early days of the internet. At this time, there were heated discussions around downloading music for free, and it then changed how we consume music today, for example, with Spotify. This is the beginning of a new era, not just for technology but for humanity.
Sandra Ruhizi: As the founder of Kijana Factory, I’ve used digital technologies to empower female farmers in Tanzania to adopt smart climate agriculture and increase their incomes. I have basic skills in technology, mostly coding using languages like html, CSS, and a little Java. I provide training and also share skills with others concerning different topics such as agriculture, health, and also technology. AI technology is used in digital technologies and social media for campaigns to work closely with young girls advocating for a sustainable economy. This is one that ensures equal pay and shares the voices of youth and young girls from my community with the world.
The opportunities of digital technologies are endless as they expand and intersect with different dimensions of our societies. But decisions about its future are decided by big tech values that disproportionately benefit a few. And conversations about fostering a transparent and accountable digital ecosystem are dominated by adult standpoints from the West. Young people are one-third of internet users, and the implications of our digital age affect our lifelong possibilities as no other generation before. In light of this, it is urgent to listen to their perspectives and collaborate with them to develop strategies that respect their values, wants, and needs.