In an extremely connected and webbed world, the relevance of social media in a teenagers’ life has acquired a completely new albeit extremely significant place. As a thirteen-year-old, going to a city school you are most likely to be an active contributor to social media, curating your life in myriad ways.
For teens today, presence on social media is an integral part of their very being or to put it more simply a virtual extension of their identity. It is natural then that parents and guardians worry and fret over their children’s well-being and safety when they find them online, accessing relatively unknown spaces and social media channels.
However contrary to what adults feel, teens today also use social media to self-learn, develop new skills, engage in peer to peer mentoring, connect with experts and broaden their understanding of the world much beyond their immediate surroundings. It is by way of learning and unlearning, speaking and listening, and connecting with the rest of the world that these young citizens learn to develop responsible, relevant voices that could contribute to the growth of humanity as a whole.
Young Leaders for Active Citizenship was created in 2016 with the vision of building capacity of young people to lead change in society. Active citizenship to us means taking responsibility of issues which ones feels passionately about and creating the change you want to see through your actions. With this thought in mind, we launched the Counter Speech Fellowship with our spirited partner Instagram. It was conceived to give passionate teens a platform and space to voice their opinions on issues most relevant to them. Bullying, body positivity, mental wellbeing, embracing diversity, creating safe spaces online and countering violent extremism were the six chosen themes for the first edition of this one of a kind fellowship.
The interview round itself was eye-opening for us. What started as a mere selection round, soon turned into a cathartic session, where these aspiring social media ninjas poured their hearts out with stories, incidents and anecdotes of themselves or of those whom they knew closely and had been afflicted with some form of bullying either online or offline.
These conversations were a convincing reinforcement of our belief that the way to protect these young and impressionable minds was not by curbing and stifling their desire to express themselves but by closely guiding and equipping them to speak their minds on relevant forums.
Over the course of three months and through intensive weekend workshops we introduced our fellows to a range of skills and ideas all which would help them positively leverage the power of social media and make it a safer space. We had sessions on visual storytelling, group dynamics, design thinking, and leadership.
Through our interactions we gradually realized that Instagram was there default go-to platform if they wanted to express themselves, seek support or just peep into the lives of their peers. Our fellows created some super creative and extremely mature content and campaigns. While some stories and posts focused on the need of appreciating and loving yourself, others brought alive the stories of survivors of violent extremism, body shaming and depression.
As soon as their content started appearing on the feeds of their target audience, their handles were inundated with direct messages and comments full of heartening stories from teens around the world. These teens finally felt that they had found a safe space where they were being heard and responded to. For instance, a teen who was struggling with mental illness, found comfort, solace and help after connecting with a team working on the issue of bipolar disorder. Successfully getting across to teens world over and watching the community validate their efforts, gave the fellows the confidence that they indeed could use their voice to make a positive change.
Running the counter speech fellowship, we also realized how we as adults have misconstrued notions of how teens use social media. We fail to gauge the many diverse ways teenagers operate on social media including reaching out for help and to support each other. We also came to appreciate the need and urgency of a platform that would give teens the opportunity to voice their concerns, aspirations and allow them to make a difference to in their own lives and those of their peers.
We often come across parents who are very worried about their child’s safety online, their natural instinct is then to control how much time he/she spends on the internet and more so on social media. This fellowship however has reinforced that banning is not the solution, sensitization is. Teens need to be educated about the power of social media to create positive change as well as to use it to find support and build lasting friendships and networks.
The first step is to be open to the idea of your teen needing a platform to speak their mind. Often, issues that go unexpressed in person, find outlets in a virtual space. This is not to say we must not be concerned, but in fact, we need to have a collaborative approach in building the digital identities of our kids. Instead of opposing access, perhaps sit down and have a constructive conversation about how they can better utilize their time on social media, giving them the confidence to go out learn, absorb and subsequently express.
While there is a community of people out there that is supportive and encourages free expression, the dangers of digital abuse cannot be discounted. It is good practice to take stock from time to time the activities of teens on social media and understand their experiences online. Teens can be susceptible to bullying and abuse, such incidents of harm also have the ability to escalate rapidly and affect deeply.
We must give teens the confidence to believe that they have the ability to speak out and that it is okay to reach out to a group of friends or a particular community for help, assistance and comfort. There are also a number of dedicated communities and services that aid teens and adolescents in solving their issues, one such psychosocial service is iCALL run by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences.
Finally, in order to support teens in their digital interactions, it is also necessary for parents for themselves to understand how they can ensure online safety. It is good to understand a platform and know the various provisions available that can help protect a young user. For instance, Instagram has several tools in place for young teens to protect themselves including the ability to have a private profile and two-factor authentication, so that they can control who accesses the content they create and share. Instagram also allows them to manage and block offensive comments, and has tools like sensitive content screening and the provision to protect intimate images.
Further, in order to ensure teens use their voices responsibly, and don’t contribute to negative conversations and actions online, it is necessary to sensitize them to what is appropriate and what is not. It would be naïve to believe that a young mind is not easily influenced. However, if we have open conversations with teens, we can encourage them to share positive words and imagery, to be supportive of their peers, and to be able to address abusive content in constructive manner.
Trust and open conversations are the two keys for equipping teens to become responsible netizens, and like positive virtue imbibed in real life, the ability to have a positive voice online can also begin at home.
Running the Counter Speech Fellowship has been an incredible experience for us at YLAC. These past three months allowed us to fully understand and appreciate the power and potential of online communities and the sea of support which they can provide. More than often the narrative around social media is clamped up with negativity and borders on ‘avoidable’ when it comes to teens. However, what we don’t realize is that identity in today’s world for teens is twofold- virtual and real. To discount this phenomenon, is not advisable. The next generation of leaders will operate in an even more intricately webbed world and where the ability to effectively navigate through the internet will count as an essential life skill.
Let’s then come together and have conversations with our teens on how they can make the internet and social media safer place for all and positively leverage the many opportunities this new space has for offer.