For teens of color, social media isn’t just about selfies

Young people often use social media — TikTok, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube — to develop their identities as activists and to push for a more just society that reflects their values.

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Professor Dominique Skye McDaniel’s study adds to a growing body of research that has found young people of color can bring about change when they learn to use digital tools to explore social issues and use those tools to stand up for their beliefs.

Professor Dominique Skye McDaniel’s study adds to a growing body of research that has found young people of color can bring about change when they learn to use digital tools to explore social issues and use those tools to stand up for their beliefs.

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For some teens on social media, TikTok and Twitter aren’t all about selfies or the latest craze in online “challenges.” Some teens are using social media to advocate for social justice.

When it comes to social media use among young people, parents often focus on potential harm instead of the positive ways that young people in general — and young people of color in particular — are using social media.

I found in my dissertation — “#OnlineLiteraciesMatter” — that some young people are using social media to develop their identities as activists and to push for a more just society. In short, they are using social media platforms to engage in what I refer to as “digitized activism,” taking on issues such as systemic racism and seeking racial justice.

My study adds to a growing body of research that has found young people of color can bring about change when they learn to use digital tools to explore social issues and use those tools to stand up for their beliefs.

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For my study, I followed six young activists ages of 14-18 across the United States, picked via online recruitment. I searched for various hashtags to find them, sent direct messages, or left comments on their posts to engage with them online.

Four of the teens identified as Black and two identified as Latina. I looked at their activism on platforms such as YouTube, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok. All of the young activists used at least one of those social media platforms for various lengths of time — from one to six years.

Each young person represented a case study. I interviewed each one and examined their social media posts over a period of three months.

A reflection of personal values

They often reacted to what was going on at the time of my 2021 study, posting about social justice, civil unrest, police brutality and a global pandemic. They were also concerned with increased hardships experienced by the communities that often are disproportionately affected by these issues.

They addressed a variety of subjects, some of which could be seen through the hashtags they used, such as #systemicracism, #climatejustice and #mentalhealth.

They also used social media to educate others through self-expression and to challenge what they saw as society’s negative views of young people. They emphasized storytelling, using hashtags such as #blackstoriesmatter, #teenwriter and #blackwriter, and pushing for change, with hashtags such as #blackyouthvisionaries and #changemakers. They made clear that they see social media as a way to represent their values.

“Everything I do online is a reflection of the person I am, and I always want that image to be true to myself,” 18-year-old Laura told me (I used pseudonyms for all of the young people). “I always need to offer perspectives that I think are crucial to a discussion relating to social justice and I do the same online. Everything I post is a show of my values.”

Higher education appeared regularly in the young people’s self-expression and activism.

For instance, Samirah X., age 14, told me how she was taking filmmaking classes at a local community college, and was inspired by the protests that followed the police killing of George Floyd to write a script for a movie called “You Change.”

Laura, the 18-year-old, tweeted about how her posts about her college classes “are pretty insightful and really push my classmates to challenge their current ways of thinking and I’m really proud of myself for that.”

As young people of color, they stressed the need to infuse their concerns into broader causes.

“The climate justice movement cannot just be advocating for preservation of parks and saving endangered species. It must be Intersectional,” Laura wrote in an Instagram post. “We have to recognize that Black and brown communities worldwide are being disproportionately disadvantaged because of air and water pollution, food insecurity, and more.”

Sometimes, they used simple statements to call attention to the issues they see as being of paramount concern.

One of the teens in my study wrote simply:

My mental health matters

My representation matters

My music matters

My joy matters

My art matters

My future matters.

The teens made clear that they believe in the urgency of taking action now.

“With this generation, we are not going to wait, if we are tired, we are going to work for it, if we want something to happen we will work on it,” 16-year-old Dakari wrote in a post on YouTube and Instagram. “Stubborn, we don’t want to wait until we are older to do stuff.”

Dominique Skye McDaniel is an assistant professor of English Education at Kennesaw State University’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

This article was originally published on theconversation.com

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