Illustration by Claudia Thomas

How Youth Are Contributing to the Digital Economy and Why Their Participation Is More Important Than Ever

By Andres Lombana-Bermudez, Sandra Cortesi, Christian Fieseler, Urs Gasser, Alexa Hasse, Gemma Newlands, and Sarah Wu.

With illustrations by Elsa Brown, Rebecca Smith, Melanie Tan, and Claudia Thomas.

Access the report here.

Illustration by Claudia Thomas

Amid the current COVID-19 pandemic, four teenage friends from Newport Beach, California — Hannah and Isabelle Dastgheib (ages 16 and 15, respectively) and Maggie and Kate Dietrick (ages 16 and 14, respectively) — decided to take action by designing face masks that help make our “new normal” more inclusive. In many regions of the world, people have started to wear face masks to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, and in some countries and cities, their use is compulsory. Although useful for many, masks can create communication barriers for the deaf and those with hearing loss who rely on visual cues and lip-read to understand what others say.

Maggie, who is deaf and uses a cochlear implant, had difficulty following the conversations she was having with her friends while wearing face masks. To help solve this problem, Hannah, Isabelle, Maggie, and Kate designed a mask with a clear plastic window around the mouth area. With the help of their parents and other adults in their local community, they launched the nonprofit mask-making company Read My Lips and began producing and distributing their product last April (Szabo, 2020). Leveraging the Instagram platform, they have been taking client orders, building their brand, and promoting their product online. In a few weeks, their @readmylipsmasks Instagram account reached over 700 followers. Additionally, they launched an online crowdfunding campaign using the GoFundMe platform, raising over $10,000 in donations. These funds help them build financial capital for their nonprofit that can be used to cover material, production, and distribution costs.

Illustration by Melanie Tan

Like Hannah, Isabelle, Maggie, and Kate, many young people with access to technology, skills, support, and motivation are actively participating in the digital economy. The digital economy is the result of several processes, including the evolution of the Internet, the development of a global ecosystem of online platforms and markets, and the spread of networked computers and mobile devices. While few have managed to achieve the level of success that these four teenagers have had with their company and crowdfunding campaign, many youth produce and consume content on social media platforms and generate data as users of a variety of services.

Illustration by Rebecca Smith

Youth are participating in the digital economy through their mediated activities on web platforms and mobile apps. By doing so, they create value for cultural goods, brands, and companies and, in some cases, for themselves. However, youth participation in this economy varies according to gender, race, and socioeconomic status, and is shaped by the structural inequalities that exist in contemporary societies.

In Youth and the Digital Economy: Exploring Youth Practices, Motivations, Skills, Pathways, and Value Creation — a collaboration between the Youth and Media team at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society and the Nordic Centre for Internet and Society — highlights both the tremendous opportunities for young people (ages 12–18) to participate as economic actors as well as the amplification of structural inequalities and the complex risks involved. What are the skills that youth are developing as they grow up online? What are young people’s motivations to participate in the digital economy? How are the boundaries between labor and play, and work and leisure, blurring as youth grow up immersed in a digital world?

The answer to these and other research questions are explored in the spotlight through the presentation of a framework and roadmap of key issues related to the opportunities and challenges that emerge when young people engage with and participate in the digital economy. Additionally, the report includes three in-depth essays that focus on 1) capital-enhancing activities; 2) aspirational labor; and 3) virtual collaboration. In this Medium post, we highlight some of the challenges and opportunities youth confront in the digital economy and 12 key areas we have identified to guide future research.

Diverse Youth Engagement: Creativity, Aspirations, and Digital Work

Illustration by Rebecca Smith

As the most connected demographic in the world (UNICEF, 2017), youth engagement with digital content and services dynamizes the digital economy. While engagement varies depending on geographic location, gender, race, and socioeconomic status, youth generate value and data as they socialize, communicate, learn, and play online. Some of these activities, such as producing, circulating, and consuming digital content, allow youth to cultivate social, cultural, and economic capital and improve their socioeconomic status. Aligned with the terminology used by other Internet researchers (Hargittai, 2010; Hargittai & Hinnant, 2008; Pearce & Rice, 2017), we call these actions “capital-enhancing activities” because they represent direct benefits in terms of social mobility and reputation. Furthermore, youth engagement and participation on digital platforms allow young people to develop a range of skills that are essential to thrive in the digital world (Cortesi, Hasse, Lombana-Bermudez, Kim, & Gasser, 2020). For instance, virtual collaboration has emerged as an important skill that enables youth to effectively work with others to produce content on digital platforms.

However, as youth grow up immersed in a digital economy ecosystem, they confront the challenge of navigating a world where the boundaries between work, play, and leisure blur. Given the data extractivist business model that the majority of corporate platforms follow, there is a risk that the content and data youth create through their use of digital platforms will be exploited as free labor (Andrejevic, 2013; Posner & Weyl, 2018; Terranova, 2000).

Illustration by Claudia Thomas

The political economy of the current digital ecosystem, therefore, leaves youth in a paradoxical situation. On the one hand, it promotes youth engagement with content and services, opening opportunities for earning different forms of capital and developing a variety of skills. On the other hand, it positions many youth as invisible workers — contributors to the production of data, value, and content exploited for corporate profit. Moreover, this economy, embedded with the neoliberal discourse of freedom and individual entrepreneurship, creates precarious conditions of labor in which job security is scarce, career pathways are obfuscated, and creative work is not compensated. Scholarship on “hope” and “aspirational” labor reveals these contradictions and the changing relationship between youth and work. The literature also highlights the need for acknowledging the creative work many youth undertake both online and offline as they participate in a rapidly evolving digital economy (Duffy, 2017; Kuehn & Corrigan, 2013).

Research Areas to Consider in the Digital Economy

In the Youth and the Digital Economy spotlight, we have identified twelve interrelated research areas worthy of more focus and exploration. These are helpful in understanding youth online activity, including young people’s motivations, rewards, and skill development needs. The topics identified also delve into structural inequalities, such as youth being in a position of relative disempowerment when competing against adults for market-share, and gaps in youth participation due to digital divides (according to gender, race, social class, and geography):

Illustration by Elsa Brown
  1. Youth as “prosumers.” Youth around the world are simultaneously users, consumers, and producers of digital content. “Prosumerism” (a combination of producer and consumer) raises questions around the impact of long-term exposure to hyper-consumerism and hyper-capitalism on youth, the offering of content and products at no cost, and the trend towards unpaid labor.
  2. Capital-enhancing activities. Young people’s online activities can generate different forms of capital that may not be economic — at least not at first. Sophisticated online engagement, such as savvy social media branding, can allow youth to cultivate social and cultural capital, which may eventually lead to economic capital gains.
  3. Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. The motivation to create, share and consume content may be driven by external rewards (e.g., seeking approval from peers, chasing fame, or earning money) or intrinsic factors (e.g., enjoyment, creativity, and a desire to develop skills). Future research could examine how positive motivational forces can be fostered and how they might change over time.
  4. Developing an economic mindset. We hypothesize that the interplay between evolving youth motivations and increased sophistication of online engagement may lead to youth cultivating an economic mindset.
  5. Short-term and long-term gains. Evolving youth perceptions of the short-term and long-term gains of their online engagement can help inform our understanding of how young people are managing the uncertainties presented by the digital economy (e.g., around future work security). For example, many youth are currently undertaking online activities for little to no compensation in the hope of future social or economic capital.
  6. Metrics of youth value creation. The activities youth engage in as they grow up as prosumers generate value (e.g., economic, cultural, and/or social) for platforms and services. However, there is a lack of public and private metrics to measure the creative and affective labor that youth are doing on digital platforms — particularly the work of millions who have not become influencers or celebrities.
  7. Collaboration and other socioemotional skills. Increasingly, a variety of stakeholders are recognizing that it’s important for youth to develop a range of skills to thrive in the digital age, from collaboration to computer programming. The Youth and Media team’s Digital Citizenship+ (Plus) Resource Platform is home to a large number of learning activities for schools and other learning environments to help foster these skills.
  8. Young people’s position in the digital economy. An imbalanced power dynamic has emerged between corporate platforms and young users, whereby corporate platforms with for-profit business models mine young people’s user-generated content and personal data. Additionally, young people (like all users) may not be compensated for their labor.
  9. Digital labor, digital play. The lines between work and leisure, and work and play, are blurring, particularly in creative industry settings. Again, this raises emerging issues around future-of-work and labor rights, as youth “playbor” often benefits corporate platforms, but is not compensated.
  10. Youth and adults: Competition and collaboration. The power relationships between adults and youth are changing by virtue of youth mastery of digital tools and skills, and direct market access afforded by the digital economy.
  11. Supporting youth enterprise. Multiple stakeholders across the governmental, vendor, nonprofit, and other sectors are increasingly engaging with youth’s online entrepreneurial and consumer identities, self-brands, and lifestyles. While some governments are providing youth with programs and learning experiences (both in and out of traditional school settings) around digital economic life, some private organizations and institutions are seeking to foster direct youth participation in the digital economy through market-based interactions, and educational programs that promote learning pathways toward economic opportunity for youth.
  12. Parental guidance advised. Some parents are active “sharents,” using their children’s experiences to create and monetize content based on the parents’ or families’ lives. As the lines between the previously more private spaces of childhood, home, and school blur into the public sphere, the methods and motivating factors for translating youth experiences into economic value are rapidly evolving and require critical and ethical considerations on the part of the parents.
Illustration by Claudia Thomas

These research areas provide an initial roadmap for understanding some of the opportunities and challenges youth confront as they grow up participating in a digital economy as producers, consumers, and users. However, we are aware that additional important issues remain to be explored, such as the regulatory and governance schemes that support the range of youth economic activities online. In the coming months, the Youth and Media team, in cooperation with the Nordic Centre for Internet and Society, will further study youth behavior online as it relates to matters of the digital economy. Looking ahead, it is our intention that the insights we garner from our work will inform recommendations for parents, educators, and policymakers about how to foster equitable and meaningful youth participation in the digital economy.

Illustration by Rebecca Smith
Berkman Klein Center Collection

Insights from the Berkman Klein community about how technology affects our lives (Opinions expressed reflect the beliefs of individual authors and not the Berkman Klein Center as an institution.)

Berkman Klein Center

Written by

The Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University was founded to explore cyberspace, share in its study, and help pioneer its development.

Berkman Klein Center Collection

Insights from the Berkman Klein community about how technology affects our lives (Opinions expressed reflect the beliefs of individual authors and not the Berkman Klein Center as an institution.)

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