There is much to celebrate regarding the young people in this country. Research demonstrates that the majority are healthy, happy and well adjusted. Most young people report having positive relationships in their lives and positive aspirations for their lives. We have also seen many improvements in their health and wellbeing over the past 17 years, including substantial reductions in risk taking behaviour.

Alternatively, risk behaviours may simply be displaced to the digital world, where young people today are spending a lot of time. The digital world is a site for a wide array of positive and negative developmental experiences and one that has fundamentally changed young people’s lives but the consequences of this remain largely unknown. The generational digital divide needs to be bridged because many adults do not have a good understanding of what young people do online nor how to support them.

Research paints a picture of an inequitable experience with respect to young people being able to access the nutrients required to thrive. Too many young people contend with systemic risks and violations of their human rights. UNCROC demands more from us, and the cumulative effects of not addressing the issues raised by advocacy groups are beginning to show. This includes too many young people not getting their basic needs met and too many young people being marginalised based on their ethnic, religious, sexual, gender, and ability identities. They exhibit many strengths, but are too often the targets of hostility, harm, and more insidious and intersectional forms of prejudice and discrimination. The neoliberal policies of the 1980s have exacerbated the inequities created by colonisation, the effects of which continue to be felt by young people. Marginalised young people suffer from poorer emotional health and wellbeing. The difficulties compound when young people have multiple, stigmatised identities.

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Aotearoa New Zealand is becoming increasingly ethnically diverse, as evidenced by growing Māori, Pasifika and Asian youth populations. There has also been growth in the number of young people who identify with more than one ethnicity. Young people deftly navigate their multiple identities and cultural worlds. Ethnic identities (both in traditional and contemporary form) are a common source of pride and having a positive ethnic identity is an important contributor to their wellbeing. At the same time, young people with stigmatised ethnic and other identities such as disabled or Rainbow, are all too aware of the negative stereotypes that pervade their worlds and this hampers their developmental outcomes. Particularly in Rainbow communities, the profusion of youth-led groups is actively working toward creating safe spaces and building resilience.

Young people actively construct their many identities as they go about the activities of their lives. This includes through acts of service and activism, participation in youth development programmes and engagement with support services. Allies within these spaces can play a powerful role in connecting youth to identity exploration experiences. When these experiences are positive andfulfill their psychological needs to belong and develop a sense mastery and integrity, identity exploration experiences can fuel motivation and Mauri ora.

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In many ways, young people in Aotearoa New Zealand are prevented from full citizenship participation despite largely inaccurate lamentations that young people today are apathetic. Civic disengagement is influenced by inaccessible opportunities and information about civic processes, and narrow conceptualisations about what counts as civic engagement. Many young people ultimately want a kinder, fairer world, and they want to make a difference but require support to do this.

For a long time, young people have felt – and been – silenced. Young people have a need for agency in their lives and a right to be involved in decisions that affect them. And whilst there has been increasing attention on youth voice and youth participation over the past 17 years, organisations are still struggling to provide authentic opportunities for this to happen. Youth participation opportunities also tend to be selective; they need to be available to the full spectrum of young people. When young people are adequately supported to engage in authentic participation, service and leadership opportunities, they benefit. Youth are capable – and not just the high achievers. Adults need to relinquish their power and expect more of young people to stand in their own mana.

Confidence and competency development provide the foundation for agency and leadership. This is a focus of many youth development programmes, where experiential learning, group cohesion and support, and skilled adult role models facilitate personal growth. Young people sharing their experiences through the programme evaluations we reviewed overwhelmingly report positive learning and development. There are, however, areas for improvement where the most common themes highlighted the importance of cultural responsiveness in programming and the skills and characteristics of the people working with young people.

Some notions of youth participation advanced in Western models sit in tension with traditional Māori views and do so in ways that can disrupt young people’s understanding of the kaupapa. For taiohi Māori, youth development is inherently tied to Māori development where the mana of young people is inextricably linked to the mana, and thereby the benefit and wellbeing, of the collective.

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Whether in formal roles (paid or voluntary) as youth worker, mentor, or programme facilitator, the relationships youth development workers have with young people inherently involve a power difference and the adults (or older youth) in the relationship bears responsibility to manaaki (care and nurture). For some young people, youth workers are the key allies and connecting agents in their lives.

Some manaakitanga though is provided from a distance, to safeguard the collective wellbeing and ensure that the resources are available and the workers are trained. Despite major advances in the youth development sector (led in important ways by Ara Taiohi over the past decade), resource constraints have negatively influenced work conditions for youth development workers for far too long. Passion goes a long way but meagre resourcing, time pressures and poor pay (where relevant) no doubt impinge on the quality of their work and their own wellbeing.

Providing accessible (financial and otherwise) and research-informed training, education, ongoing support and supervision for people who work with young people is a worthy investment because research consistently demonstrates that it is the people who walk alongside young people who have a fundamental influence on their developmental journey.

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The relationships young people have with the important people in their lives are the primary nurturing sources of their development, but they can also be the sources of strife. Family has the utmost influence and this is the case for the majority of young people, regardless of whether they come from a collectivist or individualistic background. Most young people in Aotearoa New Zealand feel cared for and close to family. Many want to spend more time with their parents but for some parents, the demands on their time – economic and otherwise – compromise their availability.

Schools can facilitate access to important services and developmental opportunities and most secondary school students feel like they belong at school. Nonetheless, the school context is, unfortunately, a common site for difficulties. Teacher-student relationships play an important role in “making or breaking” a young person’s schooling experience and strained relationships are typical for many marginalised young people. Unfortunately, alienation from mainstream education is associated with very poor wellbeing. Peer relationships also facilitate engagement in ways that can both nurture and impede positive development. Regardless, isolation from friends compromises wellbeing.

Involvement in community activities, including church, supports young people’s sense of connection and their developing identities. Sense of belonging is a vital nutrient for positive youth development. It is not only the people but the climate of the places young people inhabit that matter in this regard.

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The research base on Aotearoa New Zealand youth development has grown extensively over the past 20 years with programme evaluation studies becoming increasingly prevalent over the last decade. This growth is exciting, important for the sector and in need of continued investment. Researchers have a role to play in this. We need to grow the impact and visibility of this work by publishing and presenting our research in diverse forums that speak to different audiences.

To date, Western, deficit-based psychological and neuroscientific knowledge has been privileged in policy and public discourse about youth development. Robust research guided by Mātauranga Māori and other cultural knowledge systems is critical to raising awareness and developing strategies to best support the positive development of all young people in Aotearoa New Zealand, whether through policy or practice. These goals are better served by drawing on multidisciplinary, multi-method and multicultural research that incorporates multiple stakeholder perspectives.

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