What if that girl at the table next to you, ignoring her date and typing away on her cell phone, is actually engaging in a small moment of personal political activism?
What if that student in your class who's on Twitter instead of paying attention is actually engaging with thousands of other young people around the world via a Twitter hashtag?
In today's world, we're apt to criticize our friends and colleagues for detaching from “real” socialization and attaching themselves to social media instead.
We get upset with them even as we check Facebook, Twitter and Instagram on our iPhones each time we're driving and get to a stoplight.
Between 2012 and 2014, 67 to 71 percent of “online adults” used Facebook, and by 2014, 23 percent used Twitter. These numbers, according to Pew Research, are on the rise. This may not be such a bad thing.
Through all of the articles we read about the destruction of society through online engagement, we'd be well served to stop and think about the impact social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook are actually having.
New Problems For New Generations
Pew Research Center Executive Vice President Paul Taylor sees the world today as “profoundly challenging” for today's young people, particularly economically.
He points out that this has resulted in Millennials "getting to all the milestones of adulthood later," explaining,
Whether it's moving out of your parents' house, getting a job, buying your first home, getting married… these things are all happening five to seven years later than they did for this generation's parents, the Baby Boomers.
He goes on to say that the economic situation inherited by today's Millennials is extremely problematic, leading to “the highest levels of youth unemployment and under-employment that we've seen since the government started tracking such data.”
Today's young people have faced a wave of other socioeconomic and political issues as well, on a global scale.
In recent months, Millennials in the US experienced and reacted to racial tension revealed by police brutality.
In recent years, they've rallied for change in the Arab world.
On a broader level, they've felt compelled to band together through UN Youth Volunteers to address human rights violations in South America and rally for gender, racial and religious equality in Bangladesh.
Social Media Solutions
Through this host of problems in the world Millennials stand to inherit, they have uniformly turned to technology. Thanks to social media, young people have had a platform for enacting international change.
Unemployment, for example, is a global problem for youth. Through the #YouthNow campaign launched by the UN, Millennials worldwide have been able to unite on this issue.
They've been able to use the hashtag to discuss social and economic development, to learn about global poverty, conflict and gender rights issues and to understand there are many causes they can advocate for to enact change.
In just three months, #YouthNow has reached over 1.9 billion impressions, indicating that the idea of learning and talking about these issues has resonated with the world's youth.
We've also seen social media as a launching ground for change in the weeks after instances of police brutality in Ferguson, MO, Baltimore and McKinney, TX.
It has given everyone, in particular young African Americans, an opportunity to take a stand and have their voices heard.
According to research by Digital Media & Learning Central, “young African Americans were among the first among American youth to adopt [Twitter] at scale.”
They are ready to take a stand, and they're using hashtags to do so.
Social media use “drove” the story of Michael Brown's death at the hands of Ferguson police officers, according to Rashad Robertson of a nonprofit called Color for Change.
Perhaps this rampant social media activism is part of the reason it took less than a week for Brown's story to make it to the White House.
One Newsweek article called “How Lessons From Trayvon Helped Make Ferguson News,” points out that when Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman in 2012, it took a month for the public to find out.
There had been little to no social media outcry, only articles in state papers.
By comparison, the Twitter hashtag “Iftheygunnedmedown” was trending just a day after Michael Brown's death.
Brown's experience became very real for Twitter users. It was hard to avoid the topic on social media and, in turn, in the news and Washington, DC.
Facebook and Twitter users in Baltimore and McKinney shared videos and photos of violence and riots, showcasing the severity of instances of police brutality.
They also brought the social and economic implications of these events to the forefront of people's minds.
The Power of the Hashtag
Trending hashtags are particularly acclaimed for calling attention to issues.
One Twitter campaign spurred by the hashtags “Weneeddiversebooks” and “SupportWNDB” was so widely supported that a website was created expressly to promote diversity in literature.
It also became a topic of discussion at BookCon in New York City in May 2014.
Other popular hashtags you may know of that have spurred discussion and inspired a desire for change? #YesAllWomen advocated for women to stand up against misogyny; #BringBackOurGirls spurred a public outcry in response to the Boko Haram kidnapping in Nigeria; #BlackLivesMatter was another response to police brutality in the US.
The majority of social media users are between the ages of 25 and 34, according to Adweek.
This means many of the individuals driving these Twitter, Facebook and even Instagram campaigns are young people falling within the Millennial demographic. These are the individuals harnessing the power of the hashtag.
Thanks to social media, the National Foundation for Educational Research has found there's been a decisively “higher level of interest and activity in political involvement… than might be expected from young people,” based upon their interest in other, non-digital modes of engagement.
The young people surveyed usually found out about the political, social and economic issues going on in the world through Facebook and Twitter.
These forums enabled them not only to learn about events, but to respond through discussion, retweets and shares. It's a form of activism that can take place at home, but is hardly quiet.
People get comments and are encouraged to speak again; young men and women feel they have a sense of community; they understand they might be young, but they can still be heard.
Our generation is frequently told we should put away our devices and engage with the world, that we are disconnected and ambivalent.
But on closer inspection, we are fast becoming the generation most engaged with the world… all because we are able to use these devices, log onto Twitter and end our 140 characters with a hashtag for the world to see.
Citations: Social Media Update 2014 (Pew Research Center), 3 Reasons You Should Quit Social Media in 2013 (Forbes), Young People and Political Engagement (Pew Research Center), Youth and the Arab Spring (United States Institute of Peace), UN Youth Volunteers (UN Volunteers), YouthNew Commemorating the 20th Anniversary of the World Programme of Action for Youth (General Assembly of the United Nations), Addressing Race Inequity IssuesThrough Social Media (DML Central), How Lessons From Trayvon Helped Make Ferguson News (Newsweek), Official Campaign Site (We Need Diverse Books), BookCon (BookCon)