Young people are using social media to push for change

Amelia Heathman
Young people are seeking out social and political change through online communities: Heather Mount / Unsplash

Remember the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge of 2014? It was when people across the world poured a bucket of ice water over their heads and posted it on social media, before encouraging other people to do the same and donate to the ALS Association.

This is one of the biggest instances of online social activism, and it led to a major breakthrough in research regarding ALS, also known as motor neuron disease.

It was also an example of how social platforms can gather people together for a shared cause, something we’ve also seen in recent years with #MeToo and the Women’s March in the wake of the Trump election.

Yet, with the social media scandals we’ve faced in recent months, most notably the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica drama, it's easy to forget that good can come from the online world.

Young people haven't forgotten this, however. According to a new report by think tank Demos, supported by Facebook, the youth of today believe that social platforms are essential for achieving social change and are actively using networks like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to do this.

The report, named Plugged In, features polling from 2,000 16-25-year-olds across the country and interviews with young campaigners to build a bigger picture of social use.

So how are young people using social media?

The main takeaways were that 64 per cent of young people in the UK regard social media platforms as an essential part of achieving social change. Across the UK, around half a million are engaging with political groups through these platforms, whilst nearly 25 per cent said they communicate with community groups, charities and campaign groups online.

It was interesting to see the breakdown between how different genders approach social media.

Young women were twice as likely to use social media to campaign on social issues, whereas young men were twice as likely to use the platforms to communicate with politicians and political groups.

As well, 65 per cent of those surveyed said they feel their time on social media is misunderstood by older generations, and can be criticised.

Overall 91 per cent felt social media was a net positive to them and their community. This isn’t to say they didn't acknowledge its problems, but simply that they can see there are benefits to using it.

Why is this a big deal?

The battle between the positives and negatives of social media is on-going. Following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, there were calls for people to “Delete Facebook” and abandon social media altogether. Not to mention the abuse people can face online, with Amnesty International reporting that one in five women in the UK have suffered online abuse or harassment.

Yet the crux of the report shows that young people are using these platforms to promote the causes they believe in, to positive results.

Amika George, founder of campaign group Free Periods, for instance, has used social media to highlight the issue of period poverty. Following protests outside Downing Street - organised through social media - the government pledged £1.5 million in funds to tackling it.

George, who was interviewed by Demos as part of the report, said that it's possible we forget young people are pressing for change through their smartphones.

“Through social media, young people are raising their voices about causes they care about, and coming together in solidarity with those suffering in the real world, who may not have access to these platforms themselves. I think it's time to readjust our view on social media, in realising that it can be a real force for positive social change,” George explained.

What happens next?

The report emphasises how important it is for social media platforms to be aware of how people are using them, and of the good and bad that can come out of this use.

It goes on to recommend that the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) should measure digital community health annually, in order to survey the impact of online social action. Furthermore, social platforms should support this work by improving public access to such data.

The report’s author, Alex Krasodomski-Jones, said: "At a time when digital platforms are facing serious criticism for mishandling the spaces they are responsible for, this research finds young people are still optimistic about how these platforms can be used for good.

“As social action goes digital, we cannot allow it to benefit only those parts of society comfortable and capable of using these spaces. Recognising the power digital platforms now wield in shaping our society means ensuring they are open, accessible, transparent and reflective of the full breadth of our democracy."

It's up to digital platforms to make sure they deliver on this.