A small minority of articulate and confident young people often ends up representing the views of the majority and neglecting the voice of the disadvantaged.
An inspectorate analysis of Citizenship in Youth Work finds that too many local authorities continue to see young people as a homogeneous group and overlook alternative views.
It is the first time in 13 years that the inspectors have taken a close look at youth work practice and their report comes in advance of updated Scottish Executive guidance on youth work and community learning, due within weeks.
Graham Donaldson, senior chief inspector, told a national conference in Edinburgh that young people themselves often found it difficult to represent everyone in their age group and recognised that this was an unrealistic expectation.
The inspection focused on seven authorities and a sample of voluntary organisations and took in pupil councils in schools, youth conferences and forums outside school hours, youth councils and the youth parliament.
But lack of support for young people's groups often undermined processes, leaving them disillusioned and disengaged. "For many young people, and particularly marginalised young people, this could then become another example of their exclusion from the world and work of adults," the HMI states.
Their disaffection is probably reflected in their low commitment to voting.
Only 39 per cent of the 18-24 age group voted in recent elections. The inspectors say there are many positive stories from pupil or student councils in schools but warn teachers to be more explicit about the benefits to young people and the schools from setting up structures. "Not all student councils led to tangible and positive outcomes for young people," the HMI adds.
Economic and cultural development are increasingly viewed as central to emerging citizenship but the inspectors describe this as "a missed opportunity" in youth services.
"The work within schools on developing enterprise education was not being matched in activities for young people outside the school and in their local communities," they report.
In a further strand, the inspectors find that young people struggle to have their achievements recognised in their forums and groups. Even where there were awards, these were determined by adults.