At the recent 2022 NAAG Presidential Summit in Iowa City focusing on NAAG President Tom Miller’s Presidential Initiative, Consumer Protection 2.0: Tech Threats and Tools, a recurring concern raised was the lack of youth/GenZ involvement in discussions of technology and governance. Attorneys general can address this lack of engagement in several ways.
Why now and why youth?
Regulation has been lagging years behind technology and social media. Facebook/Meta opened its doors to 13-year-olds in 2006. However, it was not until December 2018 that the Attorney General of the District of Columbia filed one of the first lawsuits against Facebook regarding their data practices and privacy protections. Within the last year, attorneys general have initiated nationwide investigations of large social media platforms such as Meta and Tiktok as well as litigation against both companies, alleging that the platforms have violated state consumer protection laws and pose harm to the physical and mental health of children (GenAlpha) and young adults (GenZ).
At the same time, youth consumption of newer technologies and social media platforms has been fast and furious. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 90% of teens ages 13-17 use social media. Excluding time spent online for school or homework, teens (ages 13-18) are spending an average of nine hours, more than a third of their day, on online media. Tweens, those between the ages of 8 and 12, average about six hours a day.
Youth consumption has increased as technology has evolved and become immersive. Laws, policies and regulations that provide meaningful checks and balances on social media are urgently needed. The battle for tech safety, including responsible AI, cannot be fought without engaging the majority of tech users. Including youth in determining the future of legal oversight of online spaces is a vital tool to bridge this digital-legal divide. The attorneys general have recognized that the biggest missing piece is the omission of youth in the regulatory process.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 43 million youth aged 10-19 in the United States in 2019, about 13% of the total U.S. population. Estimates show that the adolescent population will continue to grow, reaching almost 44 million in 2050 and 45 million in 2060.
Additionally, diversity among youth is on the rise. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports nearly half (49%) of US adolescents identified themselves as a racial or ethnic minority in 2019.
Brookings Institution demographer William Frey argues in his book Diversity Explosion, that “the current period of profound racial change will lead to a less-divided nation and sees America’s emerging diversity boom as good news for a country that would otherwise face declining growth and rapid aging for many years to come.”
Not only do we have one of the largest generations of young people, but they are also diverse and hyper-connected across the internet. These traits can drive bigger and faster changes, but only if they are encouraged with sufficient resources and focused in an appropriate direction. Intergenerational collaboration and youth involvement in the regulatory branches of the government can be that catalyst.
The “How” (to engage)
Although it may feel challenging to understand youth perspectives and find a beginning point to engage, some attorneys general have already embraced youth perspectives and included youth in their office through a variety of experiential programs including the following:
Committees, Boards, and Councils
1. The Utah Attorney General’s Youth Advisory Committee, aka Teen Titans, advises the Attorney General’s Office on events, programs, and policies that affect teens. The Committee is open to 13-18-year-old students, who meet twice a month to tackle issues important to the state of Utah. The teen committee works closely with major organizations and has made several notable contributions:
- Helped make the SafeUT app that connects people in crisis to counselors more applicable to teens.
- Advised the Children’s Justice Centers Program on how to make their centers more teen-friendly and how to communicate more effectively with teenagers. They also gave feedback on how to interact with teens in order to make them feel comfortable
- Attended focus groups and helped the developers of the Utah Gun Safety Program understand social media, the different ways of learning, and Utah teen culture. They were also involved in the making of the instructional firearm safety film.
2. High School Advisory Council (HSAC) of the Attorney General of Washington D.C. is an intensive six-week, paid program that brings District of Columbia students together to make important policy recommendations to the Attorney General and his staff. Students are prompted to analyze real-world problems and build their decision-making skills around complex issues.
The purpose of the program is to give young people a seat at the table in making decisions about critical issues that directly affect them. Topics that HSAC members have previously covered include:
- Teen Dating Violence, Mental Health, and Human Trafficking (2022 HSAC)
- Juvenile Justice Reform: Policing in schools, Restorative Justice, and Truancy (2021 HSAC)
- Combatting Hate & Discrimination (2020 HSAC)
- Metropolitan Police Department’s Interactions with Youth (2019 HSAC)
3. The Ohio Attorney General’s Teen Ambassador Board consists of older high school students. The program aims to provide Ohio’s future leaders with an inside look at state law and government, and the board members advise the office on teen-related issues and work with their peers to develop solutions to those issues. They serve a one-year term during which they participate in activities throughout the state.
The Nebraska Attorney General’s Youth Conference is an annual event where a selected number of high school juniors from across the state have the opportunity to participate in discussion and debate on topics ranging from the U.S. Constitution, to citizens’ rights and responsibilities, to critical issues facing students and their communities. Students are given the opportunity to meet state legislators, a Nebraska Supreme Court justice, the governor, and enforcers In the attorney general’s office.
Awards and Recognition
In 2015, Washington D.C. attorney general Karl Racine established the Right Direction Awards, an annual celebration to honor District youth who have overcome significant challenges and are positively affecting their community. Since its inception, the Right Direction Awards have celebrated nearly 150 inspiring young people in the District.
Working in collaboration with other youth programs
Most attorney general offices assign staff to visit schools with their respective ICAC (Internet Crimes Against Children) units to make students more aware of online safety. In several states, Legislative Pages rotate through the office of the Attorney General and learn about their roles and responsibilities.
Other Potential ways to connect
Attorneys General are proving wrong the stereotypes of youth by launching creative programs for youth to connect to government and law. Public perceptions of young people can be changed from lazy to hardworking, from playing video games to engaging in politics, from using social media to working on social justice. Youth can be encouraged to take up powerful roles in society if they are provided with the right tools and direction. As much as youth love new technologies, they want to keep themselves safe and would love to be empowered with roles in the government and contribute to the community. The following are some suggested ways for attorney general offices to connect with young people.
Elections provide an excellent opportunity to educate youth not only about the role of the attorney general, of which many young citizens are unaware, but also to discuss with youth the uses of social media in politics.
Collaboration with schools, through increased education about governmental policy-making, school visits, and creating in-school legal-tech programs, can open doors to many more students.
Improving resources for students to start after-school clubs and activities aligned with the mission of appropriately adapting laws to evolving technology.
The benefits of youth inclusion in Attorney General offices go far beyond safe technology and a better-regulated cyber world. The hands-on opportunity to participate in the government helps young people experience our democracy and feel empowered by collaboratively maintaining the rule of law – as partners rather than adversaries. Providing opportunities for youth to realize their leadership potential, develop a sense of civic service, and foster a commitment to the Rule of Law can last a lifetime and will have positive ripple effects in society. Together, we will be better equipped for the rapidly changing and uncertain world.