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Developing a Digital Voice

Teenaged leaders on the opportunities and challenges posed by digital media
Developing a Digital Voice

We know that smartphones, social media, and near-universal internet access are changing the way young people view themselves as agents of change. But what does that day-to-day digital civic participation look like? What can teens accomplish? What are the challenges?

To get the digital native outlook on the opportunities and struggles accompanying internet activism, Usable Knowledge turned to three members of the Youth Advisory Board (YAB) at Making Caring Common. Andrew Schoonover (Kansas), Amy Fan (Texas), and Gabby Frost (Pennsylvania) are part of a diverse group of young people dedicated to spreading kindness and working for social justice.

The three teenagers offer an insider’s look at the many ways teens can navigate and impact the digital world.

How have you used social media to take action around issues you care about?

Andrew: On a personal level, I have taken a stand by taking advantage of my personal profile. For example, I changed my profile picture to have the colors of the French flag in response to the horrible attacks in Paris. Or, for the month of October, I will place a breast cancer awareness ribbon on my profile picture. On a “group” level, I actively participate in various Facebook groups that revolve around my interests and projects. I have helped form social media accounts to raise awareness and advocate for getting more teenage Syrian refugees into the U.S.

Amy: When I was a high school freshman, I used to participate in #StuVoice (Student Voice) Twitter chats each week. These chats were often simply a springboard to more tangible action on how students could have a voice in their own education. Later, I helped start the Houston ISD Student Congress in my district of 215,000 students. We have over 800 likes on Facebook and 440 on Twitter, and aside from posting meeting reminders, we also share articles and post statistics. 

Gabby: In April 2013, I created Buddy Project, a nonprofit movement aiming to prevent suicide, self-harm, and eating disorders by pairing people as buddies. I use Twitter (@ProjectBuddy) to base my movement and pair people by mutual interests and age. I raise awareness for mental health, spreading positivity and an understanding of issues people face in the world today.

What is one challenge to using digital media that you don’t think adults understand?

Andrew: Usually, adults can empathize with youth because, believe it or not, those adults were kids once and have been in their shoes. But because social media is so new, many adults are ignorant of social media and the pressures that come with it, such as having certain accounts at a certain age, posting pictures, not getting enough likes or comments, having enough followers, seeing friends have fun without you, and many more.

Amy: I'd have to say the speed. Digital media and social media spreads FAST and issues can become huge in a matter of hours, without any face-to-face conversations.

Gabby: Adults tend to think that you can’t be an activist over social media, but you definitely can. People like to call those who don’t physically advocate for issues “slacktivists” because they are doing simple work. But social media campaigns do require a lot of work and can definitely be 100 percent activism. 

If you could give one piece of advice to other teens on using social media, what would it be?

Andrew: My piece of advice is this: THINK. If you truly are thinking while on social media, and don’t get caught up in and numbed by the experience, it will be extremely enjoyable. Don’t get distracted by the negativity, but focus on the positivity.

Amy: Use social media to augment who you are — you should define it and not let it define you. Even though it is more permanent than, say, sharing something in a conversation, it still should be as authentic as possible.

Gabby: Use it for good, whether it’s for activism or to connect with people. Your social media accounts really show who you are to people who don’t know you at all, so make sure that you’re not writing things that are harmful to others or to your own reputation and character.

Responses have been edited for style and for space.

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