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WHAT ARE YOUTH RIGHTS?

Youth rights are the rights that everyone should have, but that are denied to some of us because of our young age. These rights include the right to be full participants in our representative democracy through voting, the right to privacy, the right to be free from physical punishment, the right to make decisions about our own lives, the right to be outdoors, the right to prove ourselves, and the right to receive the same amount of respect as anyone else. These rights and many others, however, are denied to us because of ageism.

Ageism, just like racism or sexism, is a form of discrimination and prejudice. But unlike discrimination based on race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, ability, or age (at least for older people), ageism against the young (sometimes called adultism) is both legal and common. Ageism impacts young people on a daily basis, sometimes overtly through legal age restrictions, but also invisibly through negative attitudes, beliefs, biases, preconceptions and stereotypes about youth. It strips young people of any social, economic and political power and leaves us vulnerable to abuse.

Young people are denied basic human and civil rights.

Ageism prevents young people from enjoying many rights that are considered universal or inalienable, such as those in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Bill of Rights, and the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Young people experience far greater restrictions on:

  • The right to vote and participate in politics
  • Freedom of speech, both at school and off-campus
  • Freedom of assembly
  • Protections against cruel and unusual punishment, including corporal punishment
  • The right to bodily integrity, including the right to consent to or refuse medical treatment.
  • Protection against unreasonable search and seizure
  • The right to due process before being deprived of liberty or property
  • Equal protection before the law, which protects older people from age discrimination, but not younger people
  • The right to make decisions concerning education
  • The right to work and earn money

Even after reaching what is considered the legal age of adulthood, we can be denied service from a variety of businesses, including bars and restaurants, music venues, hotels, and car rentals. In most states, and at the federal level, we are prevented from holding certain elected positions until we are 30 or above. These are unmistakable violations of young people’s civil rights.

Young people are at the mercy of parents and older people.

The government not only denies basic human and civil rights to young people, it also gives a significant amount of power to parents. As long as they aren’t overtly abusive, parents are legally permitted to control every aspect of their children’s lives. This includes where we live, who our friends are, what clothes we wear, and where we go to school. Parents can physically discipline us, confine us in our rooms or homes, confiscate our property, and control our communication and social activity.

And thanks to a doctrine called “in loco parentis,” this power that parents have over young people is extended to teachers and school administrators. Both at school and at home, we are told what to wear, what to learn, and when to go to the bathroom. We can be hit or shamed or have our property confiscated. In fact, according to a study conducted by psychologist Robert Epstein, we have fewer freedoms than an active duty soldier or a prison inmate.

While the intentions of most parents are good, whenever someone has that much control over another person and can isolate them from others, the likelihood of abuse increases.

The government at all levels not only allows a dangerous level of control over young people, but actively denies us basic legal recourse against abuse. It’s highly difficult for young people to escape abusive households or access the court system. The only mechanism for addressing abusive behavior by a family member is to go into the foster care system, where we are forced to give up our homes, belongings, schools, and friends. This is why, even when young people do have legal recourse, most of us tend to tolerate this treatment.

Young people are subject to false negative stereotypes.

Young people face negative stereotyping in the media, as well as in everyday life. However, stereotypes about young people are often hard to pin down because they contradict each other. Doing the exact opposite of what one stereotype says simply means we’ll be proving another. We’re trapped in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. For example, we’re accused of being both:

  • “Easily manipulated” but also “stubborn and rebellious.”
  • “Violent and criminal,” but also “innocent and fragile.”
  • “Angsty” but also “frivolous.”
  • “Too emotional,” but also “apathetic and jaded.”
  • “Too idealistic,” but also “unambitious.”
  • “Lazy” but also “hyperactive.”
  • “Stupid” but also “full of wisecracks.”
  • “Unable to resist peer pressure,” but also “trying to be different just to be different.”

Like racial, ethnic, gender, and other stereotypes, stereotypes about youth might describe certain individuals, but they certainly don’t (and with the contradictions, can’t) describe us all. But their existence does demean us all, and when they inform the way we are treated and the laws we live under, they directly harm us.

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