In the past, when students wanted to have a voice, their only options might be to write a letter to an authority, give a speech, or organize a group action like a boycott. Today, the face of youth activism is a little different. We can amplify our voices in a matter of minutes, expressing our opinions across social media. Empowerment for youth in the digital world can mean steps forward for all of us in the real world to greater justice, equality, and social good.
Large and small, my peers and I are using social media to organize communities and drive movements. In my planning for a local youth conference, TEDxRedmond, I used Facebook to promote the event, distribute important information, and recruit volunteers. Friends of mine create Facebook events as effective ways to fundraise for charities.
Not only can we organize people around action, we can gain larger audiences for our viewpoints thanks to the web. What can a young person, with opinions on problems in education, do to get their voice heard? My friend Line Dalile, from Dubai, wrote an opinion piece ("How Schools Are Killing Creativity") for the Huffington Post. Before, young people wanting to speak up about systems that weren't working would have to keep opinions to the limited radius of family and friends, or rely on traditional media to get a message out. Now, the power is in our hands. The TED Talk I delivered at the age of twelve continues having an impact, and has now reached over 2 million views.
Empowerment is not only about having a singular opinion amplified with a blog post or a video, but also about being able to build influence in the long run with our digital footprint. This process is exemplified by the story of Tavi Gevinson. At thirteen, she did something a lot of teenagers do--start a blog. Called "Style Rookie," it detailed her opinions on trends in high fashion. Her fan following steadily built, and she was featured in the New York Times. Today, she's started an online magazine for girls, "Rookie," and will be acting in an upcoming film. All these milestones of her meteoric rise started because of those blog posts on the internet. Certainly not every teenager is like Tavi or Line, but their stories capture the power and promise of my generation--present every time we make our voices heard on the web. Tips for parents and educators:
1) Give kids a place to make their voices heard. It could be a blog (set up a free one with Wordpress, Blogger, Tumblr, or any other service). I started blogging when I was seven, and it was tremendously motivating for me as a writer. To protect privacy, ensure they know general safety rules (no posting about age, location, full names, etc.) and set up comment filtering.
2) Encourage them to find their passions. It sounds cliche, but having an impact really starts with knowing how and where to do it. I started teaching writing and posting my teaching videos online because I was passionate about spreading a love of literature to my peers. That’s still a driving force behind much of what I do, and as my list of causes has grown, what I do on the internet to support them has as well. Knowing what issues you care about provides a roadmap to what you can do to support it online.
3) Start small. Many teenagers are busy with school and extracurricular activities, so finding small ways to support the issues they're passionate about is a good way to start. For instance, the World Food Programme's freerice.com is a free and easy way to make a difference; not only do you get a mental workout with questions on all sorts of academic subjects, but you help the hungry (with every question you answer correctly, a site sponsor donates ten grains of rice to the WFP).
4) Let us use the tools at our disposal. We're a generation that feels at home on Facebook and Tumblr, and we can have the most impact on this playing field we understand. Just because these are sites we use for many non-serious pursuits doesn’t mean we can’t use them--to great effect--for starting our movements and standing up for the issues we care about.
5) Find and join other communities of young people having an impact. We can always be stronger when we work together. Once a child has pinpointed a passion for an issue they care about, find who else does too! I started “The Student Union” group on Facebook (facebook.com/groups/thestudentunion) to start a dialogue with students around the world about our perspective on education reform; similar groups exist for all kinds of issues. Additionally, websites like Taking It Global, RandomKID, KooDooz, and DoSomething are dedicated areas to encourage such dialogue and community-building around young people and changing the world. A Platform For Good is a perfect example of a site that brings together the best aspects of community and digital resources.