Updated: Oct 17, 2021
Thanks to Facebook whistleblower, Frances Haugen, parents everywhere now know that the social media giant (who also owns the teen-fav Instagram) may not have children’s best interests at the heart. Now there’s a surprise. In her recent testimony to a Senate sub-committee, Haugen said she believes Facebook's products "harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy."
This is a critical moment.
Parents, lawmakers, technology companies, schools, and young people themselves must work together to figure out how to tame the beast that big tech has become. But as we do this work, let's not overlook the many young people who do manage to avoid falling down the rabbit hole of damaging algorithms, hateful posts, and a “compare and despair” environment, to use social media in positive and productive ways. Many teens use social media to advocate for causes they believe in, to pursue interests they are passionate about, or even to share kind and uplifting messages with others.
It’s important we encourage and teach more young people to use social media in this way.
Our most Cyberwise Chat tackled this topic—TikTok & Gen Z: From Viral Dance Videos to Social Media Activism. Dr. Pamela Rutledge and I were joined by Dr. Brooke Foucault Welles, the co-author of “#HashtagActivism: Networks of Race and Gender Justice” and an Associate Professor and Interim Chair of the Department of Communication Studies at Northeastern University.
We diverged a bit from the current (and important) focus on the downsides of social media to consider some of its upsides. For example, when parents think of TikTok, often risqué dance videos and dangerous challenges come to mind. However, platforms like TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter are being used by Gen Z — youth born after 1996 —in entirely different ways too. Many have discovered that, at just the click of a button, they can start a movement… like TikTok users who helped sabotage a former President Trump rally when they coordinated to register for tickets and did not show up, or young Indonesians who used the app to protest labor law reforms. And following George Floyd's murder, there was a surge in Black Lives Matter videos on all of these social media networks. In fact, Charli D’Amelio, one of the biggest influencers on TikTok (with over 63 million followers), said, “(A)s a person who has been given the platform to be an influencer... I have a job to inform people on the racial inequalities in the world right now.”
Why This Topic Is Important
Waiting for Congress to pass laws that might reign in social media giants like Facebook is going to take time, time parents with teens today don’t have.
That’s why we are so passionate about teaching our Cyber Civics curriculum to preteens and teens. One of our overarching objectives is to help youth appreciate the impact of a simple post. We also want students to understand that through the power of relationships, sharing of experiences, and by organizing online, previously marginalized voices have poured into and shaped public conversations like never before.
At the end of Level 3 of Cyber Civics we offer a lesson specifically about this topic, called “The Power of Social Media.” It provides students with a short historical overview of how social media has been used to improve or even change the world. Here are some of the examples we share with students:
The “People Power Revolution” (which took place in early 2001 in the Philippines), is widely considered to be the first peaceful e-revolution. “Texting” allowed information about President Joseph Estrada’s corruption to be widely shared. It facilitated protests in downtown Manila at a speed that was startling—in only 88 hours Estrada was removed from office. He even blamed his downfall on the “text messaging generation.”
Arab Spring refers to the wave of pro-democracy protests and uprisings that took place in the Middle East and North Africa in 2010 and 2011, challenging some of the region’s authoritarian regimes. President Obama noted the important role technology played in the uprising, praising Egyptians who used "their creativity, talent and technology to call for a government that represented their hopes and not their fears."
Fast-forward to February 14, 2018. In the U.S., high school students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, used technology to spur significant social and cultural change after a mass shooting occurred on their campus. Deciding they wanted to advocate for new gun-control laws, students picked up their devices and got to work. At first, they used their phones to capture, in real time and in graphic detail, the horrific scene during the shooting and their reactions to it. Students also posted their thoughts to Facebook and Instagram, which led to on-air appearances and passionate speeches that went viral. Soon, even more students took to social media, especially Twitter, subtweeting and retweeting news about the event and their advocacy for new gun control laws. The #NeverAgain movement was born and along with it an army of civically engaged youth working to try to change gun laws.
In the Spring of 2020, amid U.S. protests over racism and police brutality sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, teens used the app TikTok to share their experiences with protest, privilege and racism. For example, one video that went viral showed Texas teen Cameron Welch, a young black man, listing all the extra rules his mom makes him follow in order to stay safe from the police. Anti-racism and protest content is so prevalent on TikTok that Reuters has called this TikTok’s “Arab Spring moment.”
So Let’s Not Throw Out the Baby with the Bathwater
At Cyberwise, we applaud the current spotlight on Facebook, Instagram, and other social media networks. It’s high time they do better. But it’s also time we (parents, schools, and teens) do better too.
In its early days, many envisioned the Internet to be something of a “public square” where everyone and anyone—regardless of race, age, gender, social status, or political persuasion—had a voice. I hope it’s not too late to realize this vision. Our best chance is to teach today's youth how to use their voices in ways that uplift and inspire, and for us to applaud those who are already doing so.
Diana Graber is the author of "Raising Humans in a Digital World: Helping Kids Build a Healthy Relationship with Technology," the co-founder of Cyberwise, and the founder of Cyber Civics.