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January 8, 2001

The kids are all right, and want to take over
A 12-year-old CEO and poster child for the 'Youth Engagement' generation

Roy MacGregor
National Post

Finally, someone for Canadians to look up to.

So what if he's only 4-foot-11? At 12 years of age, he enjoys a quality few others on the national landscape have been able to demonstrate lately -- tremendous growth potential.

His name is Keith Peiris. He's president and CEO of Cyberteks Design of London, Ont., a charmingly successful Web design company, and in February he'll be part of the Canadian trade mission Prime Minister Jean Chrétien will lead to China.

He will, of course, be subject to great curiosity. A basement business that is already pulling in six figures in annual revenues, a child among 350 greying, wrinkling businesspeople and politicians, the only one who will be taking his father along and spending his evenings on Grade 7 homework -- but perhaps, just perhaps, Keith Peiris is less an oddity than a new trend that some are saying is only the beginning of a modern Children's Crusades.

The catchphrase is ''Youth Engagement,'' and while the surface context is more political than business, there is also an increasing link seen between the possible rise of youth political power and the very business Keith Peiris is likely to make his fortune: the Internet.

''Youth Engagement,'' The Economist claims, is most assuredly ''a rising trend in the rich, democratic world.''

And examples of it, according to the British magazine and other publications, are to be found almost anywhere older people choose to look.

Consider these engaging youngsters:

- The Australian government has sent 22-year-old Carrie McDougall to the United Nations as a representative. Some 15 countries now include one young person with their official delegations and other countries are being urged to follow suit.

- The city of Wellington, New Zealand, has a youth council that has been given a real say in policymaking.

- An Ontario law now requires students be represented at high-level talks on education policy.

- Universities everywhere are finding they must add students, usually elected, to the powerful boards of governors that set school policy.

- Researchers are finding ever-increasing evidence that children's IQs are on the rise throughout the industrialized world, with some scientists linking the jump to television and video expertise -- meaning more and more adults now defer to youth when it comes to technology.

- The city of Toronto has its own Youth Cabinet, which advises council on issues affecting the youth of the city.

- Cotham School in Bristol, England, has 100 elected councillors to represent the 1,200-member student body, with enough power to, among other acts, fire one caterer and hire another for the school cafeteria.

- A movement called ''pupil power'' is on the rise in Britain following a report that ''listening schools'' with empowered school councils were doing a far better job of dealing with the new ethnic makeup of the country than were schools that refused to listen to its students.

- Canadian teenager Craig Kielburger -- the international poster boy for ''youth empowerment'' through his child-labour activism -- has called on the UN to add a seat for children on the Security Council.

While none of this has led to a cessation of war, an end to poverty or even minor tax cuts, the cumulative effect has been to alert trend-watchers to predict that a new era of youth involvement is all but upon us. And while it would be wrong to say it does not involve protest marching equivalent to the late Sixties and early Seventies -- globalization is, in its own way, to today what the Vietnam War was to yesterday -- it is entirely correct to say that widespread communication is as central to whatever movement there is in 2001 as it was in 1971.

The difference lies in method.

What peace signs, marches and speeches were to that long-past era, the simple computer chip may be to this one. If relatively recent electronic developments such as the fax machine and cell phones can be said to have played significant roles in everything from the fall of the Berlin Wall to attempted change in China, no one knows what effect the surging Internet will have on the future of the world.

The recent U.S. presidential election, in fact, is now being seen by some as a pivotal moment in this new awakening of youth power. What those endless weeks of wall-to-wall coverage of the Florida voting mess did was provide U.S. schools with the greatest civics lesson in American history. Kids, for some reason, became fascinated with such matters as the butterfly ballot and chads -- school Internet usage tripled from the last presidential election -- and, without doubt, they learned the obvious: that every vote does indeed count. But also, likely, the less obvious: that both the system and the politicians they have are somewhat lacking.

As one Old Testament prophecy had it, ''the children's teeth shall be set on edge.''

''Political observers,'' the Christian Science Monitor reported, ''see this as a positive sign, hoping that today's schoolyard debates will turn into tomorrow's voting-booth returns.''

That, of course, is the simplest conclusion to draw. Young people in the United States have been notoriously uninterested in casting ballots since the voting age was dropped to 18 three decades ago. While 50% of those aged 18-24 cast their vote in the 1972 presidential election, when Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War were motivating issues, only 32% of that age group bothered voting in 1996, when youth found no issues of compelling interest.

What makes some believe this may be changing is the increasing interest in Web discussions and online voting shown by schoolchildren this past fall. The quest for information that has not been reduced to ''sound bites'' seemed almost insatiable during the presidential race.

Doug Bailey, a 68-year-old former Washington political consultant who now puts his energies into political Web sites, says this shift in information source is little understood by older generations.

He calls the Internet ''the young people's medium'' -- one that is neither hot nor cool, but has its own temperature, as yet unknown.

Bailey predicts the Web will one day challenge CNN on the delivery of news and information, the greybeards tuning in dull CNN while youth dances about on electronic pulses. The Internet offers not only more and deeper information, but unfettered information that has not been culled and shaped by an increasingly monopolistic television and print media.

''When television was invented,'' Bailey recently told Fast Company, ''nobody thought much about how it was going to change politics, or if we could use it to improve the process. So we're asking ourselves those questions, trying to figure out how to use the new technology to reach people, because the medium has the power to change politics.''

And that, of course, is the medium that Keith Peiris, president and CEO of Cyberteks Design, was beginning to master at the age of three, when he first began dabbling in computers.

At 12 he is off to China with a 66-year-old Prime Minister who may still be running when Keith Peiris is old enough to have his opinions count.

''It's about the whole idea of youth having a feeling of power,'' 17-year-old Kielburger told Biography magazine last year. ''We see no reason why today's youth should not be today's leaders.''


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