New Forms of Adolescent Voice and Agency Through the Use of Mobile Phones and ICT

The study tries to answer the question “what are the implications, both positive and negative, of mobile phone and internet use for adolescent voice and agency?” It explores the difference in the implications between adolescent boys and girls, between adolescents from well-off and poorer families, and between adolescents living in Dhaka city and those in rural regions, respectively. The research addressed voice and agency through indicators relevant for Bangladeshi adolescents, for e.g., developing relationships, accessing information that helps raise their voice and increase their decision-making capacity, learning new skills, developing online risk recognition and mitigation skills, and creating a sense of belonging to a larger virtual community. The study also explores whether and how voice and agency are used to express opinions, organize, and build youth leadership, and seeks to identify and understand the concerns of parents and teachers regarding risks such as cyberbullying, harassment, and the perceived social and moral degradation of the youth. 

Researchers: Maheen Sultan; Lopita Huq; Pragyna Mahpara; Sahida Khandaker; Taslima Aktar; Saklain Al Mamun; Rumana Ali; Kabita Chowdhury; Benayaz Samiul Alim

Partners: Gender and Adolescence: Global Evidence (GAGE); James P Grant School of Public Health

Timeline: 2019-2020

Status: Completed

Contact: Maheen Sultan;



The voice and agency domain is described as one that focuses on “the ability of adolescent girls to meaningfully participate in household, school and community life”. Various constraints impose barriers especially to girl adolescents to participate fully compared to boys and thereby deprive them of opportunities. The lives of adolescents in Bangladesh are however rapidly undergoing significant change with the unprecedented rise in mobile and internet use. This change needs to be understood. The research explores whether and how mobile and internet use is enabling adolescents to overcome barriers and increase their voice and agency in developing relationships, accessing information from different sources and creating a sense of belonging to a larger virtual community. It also explores whether this phenomenon is building youth leadership. At the same time, it addresses the concerns that parents and teachers have with regard to the risks associated with this change.


The central question of this research is “what are the implications, both positive and negative, of mobile phone and internet use for adolescents’ voice and agency?”

This study is relevant to SDG 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth), particularly to promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.


The sample consisted of 64 male and female school-going adolescents of class 8 who were mostly 14-year-olds. Focus group discussions (FGDs) were conducted with adolescents from four types of schools: a mainstream English medium school in Dhaka, generally attended by children of high socioeconomic status; a mainstream Bengali medium school in Dhaka, generally attended by children from middle-class families; a slum-based secondary school in Dhaka, attended by children of lower-income groups; and a government secondary school in a rural area in Cumilla. In-depth interviews (IDIs) were also conducted with three adolescent boys and three adolescent girls in each school, selected from each FGD.  Respondents also included teachers and parents of students of Class 8. Moreover, cybercafés and mobile data shops in two locations were observed. 

Findings and Recommendations 

The research finds that internet is generally contributing to adolescent voice and agency through building confidence; both male and female adolescents have gained voices through mobile and internet use, one that they did not have before. However, a wide digital divide across class, location, and gender among adolescents was also found. Children from affluent socioeconomic classes are more likely to own personal mobile phones, computers and other devices, while children from poorer families and from rural areas rarely owned personal devices, relying mostly on shared devices. Most parents view adolescents and their use of mobiles and ICT primarily as a negative combination. A common pattern that emerged in the research was the tendency of parents and teachers to work as gatekeepers to “protect” adolescents from the harmful effects of the internet by heavily monitoring and restricting their access.

This was found to be particularly problematic for adolescent girls. The preoccupation of parents around possible romantic relationships their children, especially the girls, may get involved in clouds their view. Most parents across all classes and locations invariably monitor their daughters’ use of mobile phones and internet and are more restrictive of the time they spend on it and are more sceptical of how they use it; this is not the case for most adolescent boys. The study has found a significant difference between male and female adolescents in access to and the use of ICT.  The gender-bias of the gatekeepers might widen the existing gender divide and restrict voice and agency among female adolescents.

Stakeholders and gatekeepers have a key role to play in building a safe environment for adolescents’ ICT use. First, parents of adolescents need to be oriented about the importance of digital access and skills in the lives of their children, both boys and girls.  Second, schools have a very important role to play in enabling ICT use among students, introducing sites where adolescents can find help with studies, encouraging internet use in doing research, educating students about managing online risks, and supporting adolescent students to equip themselves against ICT-related violence. Finally, the government’s ICT policy and their introduction of computer laboratories and multimedia classrooms is a step in the right direction to engage adolescents with ICT.