How do you get kids contributing to their beyond-the-screen community?

Jan Owen, CEO of the Foundation for Young Australians.


In a world where children and teenagers are bombarded with thousands of stories and images every day – 621 million YouTube clips (and counting!), TV, gaming (on average 10,000 hours by age 21), and 24/7 communication via Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and more – it’s often overwhelming to know where and how to get your kids moving and contributing to their beyond-the-screen community.

The benefits are well evidenced these days. As both a parent and someone who has worked with children and young people all across this country for the past 25 years, it is clear to me that those who are volunteering or involved in supporting causes and movements are more likely to be mentally healthy; do better at school; are more enterprising, creative and solution orientated; have a broader network of friends; and are more empathetic and compassionate towards others.

As parents we know it’s not too difficult to ignite your children’s imagination and passions – but how do you inspire and help them take positive action about something they care about?

Jane McGonigal, an expert game designer, talks about the positive impacts of gaming in a powerful reframe that will be music to the ears of any parent of a teenager.

In her TED talk, ‘Gaming can make a better world,’ Jane describes the ‘urgent optimism’ created by the player’s ‘hero’s journey’; a mammoth challenge beckons, the hero rises, only to be cut down and have another go. She speaks about the ‘tight social fabric’ created in online gaming, where players must build trust and co-operation and have each other’s back. She says we are hard wired for the ‘blissful productivity’ of solving problems and overcoming obstacles and for ‘epic meaning’ – being involved in an inspiring mission or challenge. Jane describes these characteristics as gamers’ ‘superpowers’ and she believes they could just as easily apply to creating change in the world.  I completely agree with her.

To combine Jane’s insights and my experiences there are five things parents can do to help their children and teenagers #getgooddone.

FYA is the only national independent non-profit organisation dedicated to all young people in Australia.

1. Unlock passion

Children have a finely tuned radar for what is right and wrong. They are moved by the plight of others, particularly the vulnerable and other children. Help them discover what they care about by listening carefully to the things they talk about from school and the media. Utilise all that time spent together in the car to discover what your child feels most strongly about before suggesting what they should do or how they should do it.

Once they have identified an interest or issue, help them discover who is doing what and where. There is nothing wrong with supporting online campaigns as part of this process. Recent research has demonstrated that ‘clicktivism’, as it is rather derogatively named, is often a first step for many young people and, for at least a third, leads to becoming involved offline.

For example, through The Propeller Project, FYA and Samsung are showcasing ordinary young people who are making a difference in their local communities, and providing opportunities for other inspired young people to follow suit.


Young people who log on to Propeller can watch short films about the projects that others like them are running around the country. Then they’re provided with tips, support and funding to copy those projects, or, if they want to, start their own.

Michael isn’t school captain. He doesn’t volunteer after school or go to rallies on the weekend. But when Michael heard that the footies his football club were using were potentially made using child labour overseas, he didn’t feel good about it. Using, he started a petition asking the AFL and NRL to look into whether or not the footballs they were using were ethical. You can watch the film here:


Being informed gives some kids the confidence to have a go; others don’t mind just diving in!

Young people almost never do the same thing as their parents did when they were young, and even if they do, they want to do it their own way. So make sure this is about them and not you ;-))

2. Urgent optimism

Now that your child knows what they want to do, there are over 700,000 non-profit and community groups in Australia – and millions online – to choose from. This may also be overwhelming – so the next step is to develop a plan of attack.

This must be fun!

Create a simple online treasure map, or draw a mind map, or make a collage of the goal and the steps to needed to achieve it. For example, your child may want to suss a particular group out a bit further, fundraise for a particular cause or join a volunteer group. There may be calls to make, forms to fill out, reading, money to save or timing that needs to be taken into account.

Young People Without Borders provides young people with a range of short volunteering experiences called ‘challenges’ and allows them to earn points for each challenge they undertake. They range from contribution to a local community activity for a day, e.g. cleaning up your local creek, through to online campaigns. Firm in its belief that ‘you don’t have to be a do-gooder to do good,’ Young People Without Borders makes giving back easy and fun.

Our National Indigenous Youth Leadership Academy (NIYLA) connects Indigenous young people from communities across Australia to develop the next generation of changemakers.


Make all actions achievable and tangible and, especially, time bound. Make a game of it; it’s a challenge and a great way to ensure ownership by your child when achieved.

Let your children experiment with different groups and activities as part of this process. “Try before you buy” is perfectly acceptable in the world of volunteering and social change.

3. Tight social fabric

Kids in Philanthropy has established a fantastic model in Australia of whole families getting involved in volunteering and giving back. This model of learning together and, through experiential learning, exposing children to a range of different ways to make a difference is highly effective.

Most young people surveyed about why they are volunteering, fundraising or taking some kind of social action say, “because my friend asked me”. Young people are more likely to #getgooddone if their peers are. So if your children don’t want to do something as a family, suggest they find one or more friends to join them!



Parents often feel they might be somehow traumatising their children by exposing them to social issues or others in difficulty. Children are much more resilient than we give them credit. As with images they see on the news, it is our ability to have a conversation and explain the reasons and the reality of situations, not the reality itself, which is most important. The most positive antidote is for the child to be able to take some action, no matter how small, and contribute to making the situation better.

4. Blissful productivity

Getting good done is hard work; sometimes boring and disheartening, often humbling, however there is nothing like being in flow when focused on doing something meaningful.

We tend to keep contributing when we can see we have made a difference, no matter how small. For young people, when they find their ‘tribe’ – a group of peers who share the same passions – then that is all the drive they usually need.

The Oaktree Foundation’s Live Below the Line campaign raises over a million dollars every year, mostly from young people who live on $2 a day for a week to raise funds to end poverty. No one person could achieve this result but, collectively, Oaktree’s young people make a huge difference. Their ‘tribe’ is built around a powerful mission and common cause.

FYA is dedicated to building a fairer and future focused education system for all young Australians.


Celebrate your child/ children’s #getgooddone achievements. They are of equal importance to school and sport for your child’s development and growth as a person. In fact, in today’s job market, their EQ will be valued as highly as their IQ.

Get engaged, show up, Facebook your friends about their activities and jump onto their campaigns. They will be thrilled that you care.

5. Epic Meaning

People who give back do so, in large part, because of the sense of usefulness, purpose and meaning it gives them. This is a beautiful by product. It keeps us productive, engaged and, in some cases, alive! An 88 year old told me recently they were still delivering Meals on Wheels to those poor old people down the road (who are 90!). Talk about #getgooddone.

Most of us may not be quite so crass as to say, “What’s in it for me?” (out loud, anyway), but this is a key driver of the decisions we make in all parts of our life.

For our children, discovering something they are passionate about; doing something about it; experiencing a sense of community and belonging; having fun whilst being blissfully productive with their friends; and having their contribution valued are key drivers to a life of epic meaning.


This will all change over the years, which is perfectly okay.

Jan Owen is CEO of the Foundation for Young Australians and is a passionate changemaker striving to unleash the brilliance of young people. Jan has contributed to the establishment of many social change organisations in Australia and earlier this year received an honorary doctorate from the University of Sydney for her significant contribution to young people and policy in Australia.

FYA is the only national independent non-profit organisation dedicated to all young people in Australia. Delivering a range of initiatives (co)designed with young people, FYA creates change across Australia.

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