Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Hashtag activism can help today's youth find place in the world

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For some not entirely inexplicable reason, there is frequent cultural anxiety about the state of youth, not only in Canada, but globally. At its most basic, this sort of angst seems rooted in general notions youth are our future, and as such we should be worried about how they are turning out. The more deep-rooted fears may be tied to the fact our youth reflect ourselves, and how they behave is indicative of what we, as a culture, have let them become.

Such anxieties manifest themselves in different ways from generation to generation, but inevitably the same core concerns reappear. We can be relatively reassured that every four to five years, national magazines will offer up cover stories decrying the state of today's youth, under quippy banner headlines, almost inevitably drawing on youth culture of days gone by. Various takes on the Who's The Kids Are Alright, for example, can be guaranteed to make an appearance. Except, the gist of the coverage is the kids aren't all right.

Much of the anxiety these days relates to the relationship between young people and technology. The fear is youth are spending too much time in front of screens, or they are sexting, or cyberbullying, downloading illegal files, viewing porn or any array of worrying vices that must somehow be distracting them from some idealized notion of coming of age. And while all of these can certainly be worrying issues, the repeated focus on the negative denies youth any sense of real agency.

Yet amid this apparent doom and gloom, 16,000 young people and their supporters will gather at the MTS Centre for We Day Manitoba, driven by the notion they can make a difference. They will have the opportunity to be inspired by a range of speakers and performers who believe the kids are all right.

It is admittedly easy to be cynical about events such as We Day. Ours is an era of the immediate. There is the immediate gratification of digital culture, with instant availability of media, of instant messaging and an entire digital life often at our fingertips. It is a world of what has been coined 'hashtag activism,' where supporters of a cause can feel good about themselves through doing nothing more than sharing a hashtag or status via social networking. Where activism does not really imply being active. It does seem to suggest a youthful disengagement from culture and, inevitably, We Day will provide numerous hashtags, status updates and thousands of little Snapchat moments disappearing into the digital ether. Yet is this far different than the young people who gathered in the past, holding banner and shouting slogans, there perhaps less for any belief in a cause than because it was a social event?

Few of those former banner-holders and sloganeers went on to change the world, but some did. Similarly, an event such as We Day may inspire a notable future activist. And this is precisely the point. A key contemporary concern is with youth disengagement with the political process, seen perhaps as part of a wider disengagement from society driven by an inward focus on technology and its screens. Yet statistics for We Day suggest alumni of Free the Children, the organization behind We Day, were more than twice as likely to vote as their peers.

The world of immediacy is a world of images. When the dominant images of the political process are of government shutdown in the United States, or rancorous debates over the spending habits of Canadian senators, is it unrealistic to anticipate youth might be disengaged from these institutions?

Alongside these images of the 'adult' world, youth are represented in media most often as part of a crisis, whether it is concerns about the antics of Miley Cyrus or the effects of video games on teens who spend hours playing Grand Theft Auto V. There is little opportunity where young people are afforded a voice as opposed to being talked about.

Yet, somehow out of this there do emerge youth who make a difference. There is Malala Yousafzai, whose determination to gain an education led to an assassination attempt. Yousafzai emerged from this as not only a spokeswoman for the rights of young women, and a Nobel Peace Prize contender, but also, in many ways, as a 'typical' teenager, both an advocate and product of contemporary youth culture. In Canada in the mid 1990s, then 12 year-old Craig Kielburger channelled his response to the horrors of child labour into a youth movement that eventually became Free the Children and which has spawned We Day. Now in his early 30s, Kielburger and brother Marc have sought out ways to reach young people in a manner that allows them to become active agents of social change and to feel engaged. So, in its appeal to youth, We Day is as much spectacle, infotainment and social opportunity as it is serious message.

So yes, hashtag activism is likely to be alive and well at the MTS Centre. But let the Instagram pictures and Vine videos flow. Youth culture and its trappings are the purview of youth, and through it young people find ways to express their own unique agency and find their place in the world. Perhaps if we let them get on with doing it, we can be less anxious about the future, and we can leave it to this generation of young people to fret about the next.


Scott Henderson is an associate professor in the department of communication, popular culture and film at Brock University

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 30, 2013 A6


Updated on Wednesday, October 30, 2013 at 8:12 AM CDT: Replaces photo, adds live blog

8:15 AM: adds video, adds photo

9:45 AM: Adds live video player.

6:35 PM: Adds video.

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