There is a popular notion that teenagers spend all their free time doing absolutely nothing of value. They have their heads buried in smartphones, mindlessly flipping through tailored selfies and popstar updates, not a care in the world for anything that actually matters. This notion does hold some weight for some teenagers – they really do spend most of their time Snapchatting filtered pictures and reading who Justin Bieber is dating now – but many choose to use the internet in other more effective ways. Many young people are extremely up-to-date on current events and put their natural digital literacy to use in researching everything they possibly can. The capability that today’s youth have to find correct information on anything and everything is unparalleled by any other generation before them.
So why do adults pretend like they do not know anything?
The way youth use social media and other online platforms reaches beyond selfies and keeping up with the Kardashians – they can even reach online activism. It is surprisingly easy for adults to forget that their kids have access to the exact same level of information that they do, and while some may lack the “real-world understanding” of it, most don’t. Teenagers are part of the workforce now, they read the news, and they understand how the issues impact them and those around them. If a teen does not understand something they are reading, or don’t necessarily know the context behind it, they are more than capable of researching it themselves without falling prey to fake sources and unreliable sites. The “naïve youth” argument no longer works, and neither does the premise of “they don’t care”. One only needs to look as far as sites like Tumblr and Twitter to see that.
Modern social media enables youth to get information directly from the source and participate in global discussion about current events. Thousands of individuals can contribute to discussions similar to those taking place in government halls, and many are more civilized, accurately sourced, and respectful than what actually takes place with policy-makers. Currently, young people are leading the charge against bigotry and harmful rhetoric, armed with only their cellphones and determination. 2016 Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders built his entire platform on issues that youth care about – climate change, healthcare, education, etc. – and the young people rallied behind him. When Sanders lost the Democratic nomination, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump scrambled to win the youth vote, but neither ever quite gained the momentum that Sanders did. So how did the oldest candidate easily win over the young voters?
For starters, he treated them like real people. Sanders main goal was to ignite a social revolution, and ignite it he did by presenting himself as the compassionate-but-forceful candidate who wasn’t your typical corrupted politician. He didn’t just influence those who could vote – his words impacted those below voting age, inspiring thousands of teenagers to participate in the political atmosphere. Sanders campaign urged many youths to call out their officials on their hypocrisy – they constantly talk about “the importance of thinking about the children”, yet never asking them what the “children” think.
Besides the bureaucratic inaction, it’s incredible to see the impact that powerful youth have. Malala Yousafzai, the Afghani girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize when she was only 17 years old for her activism dedicated to girl education. Craig Kielburger, founder of WE (formerly Free the Children) started his organization when he was just 12 years old and now focuses on youth empowerment to achieve local and global change – and it works. There are few things more influential than a group of students with a united goal, and the change that can be provoked by these supposedly “naïve” young people is unparalleled. The events of May 1968 in France, the Egyptian Revolution, and the Soweto Riots in South Africa are just a few major events attributed to youth, and the list goes on. Currently, there is a group of 21 students below the age of majority suing the US government on the grounds that they believe their constitutional right to a healthy environment in being impeded by federal projects on protected resources. The Voice of Youth in Chicago Education, a group made entirely out of adolescents, helped pass multiple bills in Illinois that prevent teachers from handing out major punishments, like suspensions, for minor infractions (many of these cases were racially motivated).
It’s incredibly clear that youth have the power and will to act on what they see as injustice. The whole premise of equal education is to build a populace that can contribute to a healthy democracy, and an essential part of this is the right to a voice and the right to be heard. This is not a right that only takes effect after a predetermined, arbitrary age. Young people are invoking massive change everywhere, and a culture where they are not listened to only builds a population that cannot see that their ability to act on their opinions matters. Youth are more capable than ever to form educated opinions on, discuss, and think of solutions to massive issues, and sometimes in a way more sophisticated than most politicians. In an era of division and prejudice, it is vital that governments not only listen to the voice of young people, but act on what they are seeing. They will one day inherit the earth, and they have the right to help make it better now.
Feature photo courtesy of Futures Without Violence (https://www.futureswithoutviolence.org/this-is-what-youth-activism-looks-like/)