How students are using social media to change the world

Across the country, high school students are using Twitter and Instagram in positive ways

Social media has gotten a bad rap. I’ve read lots of articles calling it addictive, mind numbing, and a waste of time. And that’s before we even get into Facebook, data privacy, and Cambridge Analytica. But as the students-turned-activists at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, have discovered, when used properly, social media can help you make a difference.

The Parkland students have been using Twitter and other social platforms to mobilize teens (and adults) to fight for stricter gun laws. On March 14, thousands of students walked out of class to protest gun violence for National School Walkout Day. Most of those students heard about the walkout via social media; in fact, social media analytics firm Talkwalker counted more than 566,700 mentions of the walkout on social media.

On March 24, hundreds of thousands of protesters gathered around the country for the March for Our Lives, an anti-gun march organized by many of the Parkland students. The #MarchforOurLives hashtag on Twitter registered more than two million social media posts in the 24 hours between March 23 and March 24, according to Talkwalker.

But the Parkland students aren’t the only ones using social media to do more than watch videos and memes. Across the country, high school students are figuring out other ways to use social media positively.

Helping students learn the power of words

Encouraged by Duke University’s “You Don’t Say” campaign, which highlights language used to marginalize people, students at Westwood High School (WHS) in Westwood, Mass., held a weeklong “Don’t Say WW” campaign.

Katherine Clifford, who teaches math and computer science, says the movement started at a senior leader’s council meeting, when a student mentioned the Duke campaign and said, “We should do that here.” Clifford worked with the administration to establish guidelines, and students used Instagram to post words to not say and why to not say them. Nearly 150 students, teachers, and administrators took part in the campaign.

Here’s an example of a post:

WHS students also do other positive things on Instagram, including posting pictures of students with great outfits on their Fashionistagram page, and Boston Sports News, which is maintained by a WHS senior and has 23,000 followers.

Finding volunteers to staff a summer camp

Katie Waeldner, who is currently finishing her first year at Duke University, discovered the usefulness of social media when she worked at Lunch Crunch, a summer camp in her hometown of Yarmouth, Maine. The camp, which is staffed by high school volunteers, serves free lunch to children in need.

Last summer, Waeldner realized the camp would end three weeks before school started, so she worked with Yarmouth Community Services to add free breakfast and extend the program. In order to staff the longer day, Waeldner turned to social media. She posted pictures of kids eating or playing on Faces of Lunch Crunch, the camp’s Instagram account modeled on the Humans of New York.

“We went from two to 50 volunteers!” says Waeldner. “Using the social media everyone is looking at helped us keep the camp going.”

How to teach students to use social media for change

Jeffrey Knutson, a senior producer and content strategist for Common Sense Education, believes that many people underestimate what students are capable of doing with social media. He recommends pairing lessons on digital citizenship and media literacy with social and emotional learning (SEL) skills. “We need to teach digital and media literacy in the context of empathy and understanding each other’s differences. Talk about integrity, the importance of humility, and other important SEL skills while working on digital citizenship and media literacy.”

Knutson encourages teachers to work on these skills with their students so that school can be a safe space to make mistakes. Two Common Sense resources that can help are the SEL Toolkit for Educators and the Digital Citizenship and SEL Guide.

Steve Ouellette, director of technology, learning & innovation at Westwood Public Schools, believes that schools should address digital citizenship as early as possible. “In the second year of our high school’s one-to-one program, we created a course called Freshman Seminar that covers everything from using G Suite to social media. While we still point out some of the negatives and ‘don’t dos’ of social media, we also strive to demonstrate some ways students can use platforms to create a profile that colleges will notice for the right reasons.”

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