Youth, Activism and the Power of Digital Media

As more and more young people find themselves drawn to the world’s issues, the question of how to go about addressing them becomes increasingly important. One area that has proved to be particularly contentious is that of digital media. While there are plenty of arguments for the use of social and online platforms, there have also been various attacks on the efficiency of online activism.

In particular, many have debated the subject of “slacktivism” – the idea that most online activism is ineffective because of the limited commitment it takes to share media, sign a petition or post material. This article will highlight why this is an important issue for young people, how online media can be used for activism and the pros and cons of doing so.

How young people use the internet as an activism tool?

 Internet activist group 'Anonymous' hold peaceful protest [CREDIT: Anonymous9000]

 Internet activist group 'Anonymous' hold peaceful protest [CREDIT: Anonymous9000]

Young people are in a prime position to use technology and the internet as a tool – many of us have grown up with various forms of technology in the home and at school, we understand how to use social media to our advantage and the internet isn’t new or intimidating to us.

This isn’t to say that the older generation aren’t able to do the same things or even better - but for most young people, using several kinds of digital media on a daily basis has just become another aspect of our lives. Even the most skilled adult users have still had to adjust from a time before this became the norm.

When it comes to activism, we can quickly reach more people than ever before in a variety of different ways. From lower levels of action such as signing petitions or sharing an article to more time-consuming efforts like posting a blog or video, activists have an array of tools at their disposal. Spreading awareness and organising gatherings or events no longer has to take up a lot of time and resources, meaning these can be directed elsewhere. [CT1] 

Educational resources in the form of articles and videos are plentiful and often thorough (a good example is that of Laci Green, a feminist YouTuber who frequently creates videos covering gender issues, sex positivity and self-care). These platforms are useful for all activists in both self-education and posting our own media to help others.

‘Slacktivism’?: the pros and cons of online activism

However, like all systems, there are of course limitations to online activism and some of its best qualities are also its worst. As anyone can post anything, not everything is properly researched, which can lead to a potential spread of misinformation, and even those that are produced carefully can suffer from hateful trolls among more positive commenters. (See our video below for a few ways to stay smart online).

Since the ALS Ice Bucket challenge and Kony 2012, there has been a lot of debate about whether online activism is even worth pursuing at all. Many lower level forms are dismissed as “clicktivism” or “slacktivism”, insinuating that there’s no real effect and that the use of online media is a fad that merely makes people feel good about themselves.

While this could apply to less effective actions such as changing your profile picture to show support or liking a post about an issue, I still think it’s somewhat misguided. I’m not sure people who do just these things consider themselves activists or get any great sense of philanthropy – we like things because we like them, not because the act of clicking a little blue hand is going to change the world.

Other higher level forms of activism, such as signing petitions, sharing media and asking others to donate to a cause (especially when you’ve already donated yourself) don’t deserve this ruthless dismissal. While they take just seconds to carry out, their full effect can be staggering. Petitions have existed for centuries, but websites like change.org have made the process far more straightforward and much quicker. Even if the petition itself doesn’t achieve the desired change, it will have taken less time and effort than a petition that took weeks to collect by hand that received the same result.

Sharing media can raise awareness, educate and motivate great numbers of people in ways that can’t be measured – there’s no knowing how many people might be deeply affected or who might be spurred into a lifetime of action from one person making a particular issue known to them.

Donations are also easier and safer online for both charitable worker and donor – people may be reluctant to give money on the high-street and collectors have to stand and be rejected for hours, but online the process is secure, quick and easily shared with others. And clearly, economic support makes a very substantial difference to those ultimately benefiting from it.

Content and entertainment company TakePart sponsored a study that found so-called "slacktivism" can be effective.(TakePart) 

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Opening up new channels for change

Those criticising online media often tell users to step away from the computer and go out to volunteer or donate, ignoring the fact that not everyone has lots of money to donate or time to spare, even if they care about the cause deeply. In addition to the points mentioned above regarding donation, online media can allow people to donate as little or as much as they feel able. Digital activism allows those with little time or spare cash a chance to participate in a cause they care about, without putting undue pressure on themselves. Causes are important, but self-care is too – activists can’t help anyone if they’re overly stressed or fatigued from trying to do too much.

Saying “step away” also indirectly dismisses those who are actually donating and volunteering offline, but are using additional platforms to reach a wider audience in more efficient ways. Online activism often goes hand in hand with physical activism, as real passion for a cause leads us to find as many ways to help as we can. It also allows people who want to support multiple causes the chance to help each on different levels (for example, I care about gender-based violence, LGBT+ issues and animal rights, but much of my time goes into the first one – online activism allows me to support the other two as well).

Not everyone can - or should - be an activist

Finally, not everyone has to be an activist. Obviously, improving the world would be a lot faster and easier if every single person wanted to spend their lives working on an issue. But not everyone does and that’s completely fine (probably better than fine, there would be chaos if everyone upped and left their day jobs!). Activism should be pursued out of passion and determination, not guilt.

Youth in particular are already facing unprecedented levels of anxiety and depression from mounting pressure in social and educational spheres. Adding more onto that by saying “Oh, and you have to save the world too” can only end badly. Digital activism, on any level, has allowed us to shed the mentality that we’re just individuals who can’t have any real effect because the world and these issues are just too big.

Activism at its core has always been about bringing people together, knowing that a thousand voices together can achieve great things. Even if a person doesn’t want to spend their days actively fighting for a cause, they do a lot more by clicking “share” than doing nothing at all.

While there are a few downsides to the internet in general, the use of digital media can be immensely rewarding. No one is saying that online activism should replace physical activism and as long as we’re careful, the internet can be an endlessly useful tool to support the first-hand work that is already happening.

To dismiss online activism entirely is to dismiss one of the most vital and ever-improving instruments for change that we have in the modern day.