In Praise of Clicktivism

03/31/2015 12:59 pm ET | Updated May 31, 2015

There has been a lot of chatter lately about cyber-activism, or "clicktivism" -- the use of digital communication technologies in support of worthy causes. Critics argue that getting involved in a charity through, say, Facebook or Twitter merely creates an impression of support. They say that social media makes it all too easy to appear engaged in important issues without taking any real action, that all the "likes," shares and retweets about this issue or that crisis simply do not yield results that count. In some cases, maybe so. But it doesn't have to be that way. A number of groups have found ways to operate effectively in the digital sphere.

These days there's no question that if you've got something to say, you log on. The Internet and social media are where many of us go to express our thoughts and plans, hopes and dreams, to friends, acquaintances, even strangers. More than half of us -- 52 percent -- go online to discuss what's on our minds, according to a 2014 survey by Cone Communications. Among millennials, it's 71 percent. And there's ample opportunity to do it. Americans aged 18 and older, on average, spend about an hour a day on the Internet on their computers, and at least another hour or so accessing apps and the Web, according to Nielsen.

The U.S. Fund for UNICEF has something to say. We believe that in order to gain support and greater visibility, we should be where the action is. We need to be part of the online discussion and exchange of ideas. But we also need to find ways to leverage that online presence to make digital engagement productive and meaningful.

The UNICEF Tap Project is an example of how a campaign might play off a popular technology trend -- apps and games -- to make a real impact. For the month of March, the Tap Project invites people to take a break from their smartphones while our mobile app tracks their downtime. The longer they stay unplugged, the more Giorgio Armani Fragrances, S'well and other sponsors pump funds into UNICEF's clean water programs. Fifteen minutes of "digital detox" translates into a day's supply of safe, clean water for one child.

In 2014, 2.6 million UNICEF Tap Project participants from the U.S., Australia, South Korea, China, Germany and 20 other countries across the globe generated more than a million dollars in clean water funding. More than 350,000 referrals to the Tap mobile site came through Facebook.

Our new UNICEF Kid Power program also capitalizes on a digital trend: the popularity of fitness bands to monitor physical activity. Elementary school-age participants use our wearable devices to track how many steps they take during the day, and earn points accordingly. Those points act as currency with our sponsors, who then make real donations, specifically funding for Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Food, an emergency treatment for life-threatening malnutrition in children.

Last October, 900 students and teachers in Sacramento earned enough points -- 354,750, to be exact -- to cover a full course of Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Food treatment for 473 severely malnourished children. (That's 70,950 packets of protein-rich peanut paste.) We have signed up 10,500 new participants in Boston, Dallas and New York to take the challenge beginning this month. And we stay connected with participants, parents and supporters and help generate excitement for this initiative through online engagement.

We recognize that the Internet is a big, noisy place, and that messages can get lost in the shuffle. But we can't ignore the role that technology and digital activism can play in service to our overall mission. So we appreciate all those clicks and finger taps to view our webpages and follow our Twitter feeds, because they're more than just gestures. They keep our concerns and our objectives part of the conversation. And they help us make sure that the world's most vulnerable children and their families are not forgotten.