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Posted on July 19, 2007 in Journalism

Young people and local politicians are using their mobiles to help change attitudes and share lives

Robert Bullard
Wednesday July 19, 2006

Five young people and five councillors in Norfolk have used their mobile phones in an effort to engage more young people in the region’s democratic process. They have taken photos that illustrate their everyday lives and shared them online (

Vivienne Clifford-Jackson, Liberal Democrat leader of South Norfolk district council, says using mobile phones offered the district council and Norfolk county council, which is also taking part, a way to reach out to young people using a method and language that they were used to. “We tend to think of young people as just a nuisance, and where crime comes from,” she says.

But the project has challenged such stereotypes. Local councillors were surprised to discover that the youngsters were not interested solely in skateboard parks and other leisure facilities. Their mobile-phone images and the captions that accompany them made councillors think again about young people’s attitudes to food, vandalism and crime, for example. Some of the captions read: “These are my fev vegetables cos i like being healthy”; “Why do people think it’s funny to keep wrecking things?”

The photos also pointed to places where young people felt they were being sent conflicting messages. Against a sign saying “No ball games”, Thorny, a 19-year-old from Long Stratton, wrote: “There was me thinking that kids are being told to do more outdoor activities?”

Daniel Cox, a Conservative councillor at the county council who has participated in the scheme, says the Life Swap project has helped to break down barriers and remove “the tags and the titles” between young people and local politicians. Through the exchange, young people saw that councillors don’t spend their whole day in meetings, and councillors acknowledged that young people don’t spend their day on street corners – and it isn’t antisocial behaviour when they do.

Malcolm Venning, 17, who got involved in his local youth forum in south Norfolk following Life Swap, agrees: “Most of my friends are turned off by politics but the project has showed councillors the lives of young people, and now the two sides have been brought together”.

Fran Farrar, Norfolk county council’s deputy coordinator for active citizenship, says another of the young participants has become a volunteer in order to become a youth worker.

Last month, the project – with the help of mobile-phone company O2, which donated phones and call credit – was replicated at six other councils that, like the Norfolk pair, have beacon status for their work on positive youth engagement. The photographic results of young participants are online (, which it is hoped will encourage blogging, learning and an exchange of ideas. “It’s brilliant. It has taught me things I didn’t know about young people,” says Pandora Ellis, a youth cabinet coordinator at West Sussex county council. “And it has enabled them to see things around the rest of the UK.”

Nobody expects the projects to change overnight the often negative image of young people, but it is hoped that the positive reactions thrown up by the projects will spread.

Clifford-Jackson is keen for young people in South Norfolk to have their own cabinet and budget. “Unless we start effectively engaging with them, in 25 years’ time nobody will be voting.”

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