Youth today are being raised in a digital community that is astounding in its breadth and power, and I say this not just because the Internet brought our beloved Veronica Mars back to the screen. However, certain practices and trends affecting these fledgling digital citizens, particularly those in social media, can be more than troubling.
We could attempt to equate the experience of growing up online to that of obtaining one's driver's license. But this metaphor would not properly encapsulate it. First, because there are few clearly defined rules of Internet comportment. Second, because unlike driving, youth are by and large more adroit at navigating the digital realm than their parents.
This past week, Ana Maria Chavez, CEO of Girl Scouts USA, published a post on the need for adults to be more aware of social media as their children grow up as digital natives (individuals unaware of a time without digital media channels). Their own BFF (Be a Friend First) initiative also encourages its scouts to be positive voices and leaders within their community, especially in cases of cyber bullying. After all, digital natives will be the trendsetters for digital comportment. It is both logical and forward thinking to address these issues at their source.
Another such project is the AOL supported Citizens School apprenticeship program. AOL employees have partnered with sixth graders from Isaac Newton Middle School in Harlem, NY, spending the past semester learning about social engagement as it relates to the digital age. The students were asked as a part of their capstone project to choose an existing organization that incorporates the theme of education. They would then use social media to organize and publicize a fundraising effort for this organization.
The Citizens School apprentices focused their collective digital muscle on the non-profit Pencils of Promise, largely because it epitomized social justice movements of the digital age: a small group of individuals starting with a single idea that gained traction through building their digital profile.
The digital age can be cause for a bit of fatigue from the torrent of information that is made available to us. It shrinks the globe to the point of sometimes being suffocating. This is especially true of social justice issues. But what the student apprentices learned was that social media is a medium tailored perfectly to efficiently pooling resources and attempting to make a difference on a larger scale than ever before. The world may seem smaller in the digital age, but we also can tap into its resources quicker and more profoundly.
As part of their fundraising efforts, the sixth graders from Isaac Newton Middle School created a Twitter account, a Facebook page, and a team fundraising page for their "We Ghana Build a School" project. This is the very power of social media as it relates to our youth. Could you imagine a lemonade stand or car wash fundraiser reaching hundreds, if not thousands of people with one click? It certainly beats standing outside of a grocery store in a soccer uniform holding a coffee can, or going door to door in the dead of winter with a box full of candy!
Some may come across these sorts of youth initiatives and echo one of the common critiques of social media channels: that they have made it so that each and every one of us can be made to feel like a celebrity in some capacity. We now have an immense public that follows our movements and thoughts as they are published online. Of course, this newfound path to the pleasures of being famous has given rise to people acting out or seeking attention through less than virtuous means. And yes, this is the common story of youth and social media that we read about today.
But we can also gain followers, go "viral," for making positive connections with others and trying to make a difference in the world. The ease and efficiency, and relatively low overhead, that social media affords make it so a child today with a single dream of a better world can connect people and genuinely make a change through digital-only efforts. This sort of celebrity reaps exceedingly greater benefits for all, while still giving that sense of recognition that comes part and parcel with our relationship to social media.
So please join us in supporting the students and volunteers of the Citizens School apprenticeship in their quest to promote healthy uses of social media. Watch them on Huffpost Live, contribute to their "We Ghana Build a School" team fundraising page, retweet them, or leave a few words of encouragement on their Facebook page.
Let's give them the recognition they deserve and make them feel like celebrities for all the right reasons!