We all know teens are fanatically using social media to gossip, flirt and tease – this is no revelation. What has received less widespread acknowledgement however, is how teens are harnessing the web to rally around charitable causes and drive political activism movements.
A World Vision study released in February shows that there are misconceptions about teens’ priorities and online activities, as almost half of all teens are becoming more cause-oriented through social networking. A study in 2010 also shows that parents underestimate their children’s charitable nature as only about three in five parents (62%) said their teenagers support charitable causes or organizations, whereas almost three out of four teens (74%) reported that they do. In the same report, 58% of parents said teens today are lazy and 9% of parents said teens are generous. This is evidence of a huge disconnect.
I recently attended the Just Peace Summit and TEDxTEEN (both hosted by the We are Family Foundation), which were strong demonstrations of how Gen Y is using the digital space for public diplomacy and disruptive innovation. There is no doubt that youth are in a very unique and extraordinary position to lead such movements. More than any preceding generation, they can leverage the capabilities afforded by rapid technological development, convergence and deeper penetration. They are more savvy, aware and have an opportunity to relate more effectively, overcoming socio-economic, education, literacy, cultural and physical boundaries.
Indeed, Farah Pandith (@Farah_Pandith), Special Representative to Muslim Communities, opened TEDxTEEN and discussed how this ‘techquake’ makes youth more powerful and efficacious – but also gives them more responsibility. This forces us to rethink the conventional perceptions of age milestones – thirteen is now an age of responsibility because it is the age of eligibility for registration on social networks.
Connor Brantley (@ConnorBrantley) is thirteen years old and is the living proof of this. Brantley is the is the founder of United Now, a political organization committed to ending partisanship on all levels of government. He has already worked on behalf of two Presidential candidates, a gubernatorial candidate, and several local candidates and believes no one is too young to take part in the US political system. He talked at TEDxTEEN about the importance of using digital channels to and urged the audience to recognize; “We shape the world, step by step, post by post tweet by tweet.”
We could not address the topic of internet activism without referencing the recent revolution in Egypt, in which youth played the primary role in the toppling of Mubarak’s regime. Computer Science student at the American University of Cairo, Amr Ashraf (@ashrafamr), gave his personal recount of the story of Khaled Mohamed Saaed and the events of the revolution at TEDxTEEN. Ashraf, 19, joined Facebook activist groups and used Twitter to circulate real-time updates on the happenings in Tahrir square, uploading photo and video content and sharing alerts when police officers were shooting in certain areas. When Mubarak stepped down, Ashraf describes the feeling of victory to me; “I never felt that I do matter and that I can change whatever I do not accept in the country’s system….I am grateful that this revolution happened now, because it was the time for the youth of Egypt to take control of their own destiny.”
Meanwhile, 17 year old Palestinian Nayef Hammouri, is another emerging voice in the region and was selected as one of the 2011 Global Teen Leaders, who all flew in 15 different countries to attend the 2011 Just Peace Summit in New York. Hammouri lives in occupied territory in Hebron and does not have a public garden or social space so he created Hebron-Book, a social network for Palestinian youth (both in Arabic and English); “I created Hebron-Book six months ago at first thinking of my family, friends and Palestinian youth, to give them a safe place to share thoughts and ideas,” he says.
Hammouri has never taken classes in computer science. He has limited fluency in English. His recent trip to New York for the summit was also the first time he had ever traveled on a plane. While he calls Hebron-Book a “small village” and the project is only in its infant stages, he plans to use it as a model for a larger social network for the Arab region. I am Hammouri’s mentor for 2011 and will be support him to build and develop his project.
Brantley, Ashraf and Hammouri are just glimpses of what teens are achieving through their digital capabilities and resourcefulness, and it is time we honor this. There are countless research studies that examine internet dangers, dissect teen behavioral trends and claim that technology is making youth “less human,” disillusioned and narcissistic. This only upstages, belittles and trivializes the phenomenal potential and movements which are right before our eyes.
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