Are "Twittering" Youth Agents of Positive Change?

The United Nations World Youth Report 2007 stated that there are approximately 1.2 billion people -- 18 per cent of the entire world population -- between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four living in the world. Youth is a powerful force for change and youth activism is on the rise, with a lot of young people taking action for social transformation. Youth are engaging with their communities and making their voices heard. This activism is being carried out through a variety of media and is conducted differently in nearly every country in the world. Young people can choose to hold rallies and protests on the streets, attend public hearings, or even organize grassroots movements within their communities. Since the Internet is used by 30 per cent of the world's population, as some estimates have it, it has also become a preferred tool for young people to foster positive change.

The term "social media" might be unfamiliar to some people. Facebook.com, the most popular social networking website, is the second most accessed website on the worldwide web. As of January 2011, Facebook.com had more than 500 million active users worldwide, and half of them log into the website everyday. Approximately 70 per cent of its users live outside of the United States. Other popular social networking websites include YouTube, Twitter, and MySpace. These websites allow the creation and exchange of user-generated content, where users can create a profile and share anything they want about themselves, including photos, videos, and web links. They can also play games with other users, listen to music, and become "fans" of artists who are also users of such social media websites.

According to a study done in 2008 by Forrester Research, young people spent most of their time on the Internet visiting social networking websites -- it was a daily habit for at least a quarter of the young people who participated in the study. Recognizing the close ties of young people with social networking websites, a lot of their peers are accessing them to communicate their ideas and activities, including those aimed at catalysing positive social change. Social networking websites have a lot of features that are beneficial to spreading the word of youth activism.

Let's take Twitter as an example. Anyone can join Twitter for free, open an account, and share news through their account. On Twitter, any text -- known as a "tweet" -- can be shared, but it must contain 140 characters or less. This "tweet" can only be seen by people who "follow" a person and are able to read their updates. Subsequently, if a Twitter user would like to share what he or she has read, Twitter provides the "retweet" feature, through which news can be shared worldwide in minutes. Anyone can write whatever they want, and they can share it instantly with Twitter users across the world. The ease of sharing information is advantageous in nurturing youth activism. In short, the Internet, along with its social networking websites, has connected youth from all over the world.

To Write Love On Her Arms (TWLOHA), a non-profit organization in the United States dedicated to finding help for young people struggling with depression, self-injury, and suicide, has been using social networking websites to communicate its message. More than 112,000 people are following the organization's tweets, and more than 720,000 are supporting its cause on Facebook. Through these websites, the youth-led TWLOHA has engaged a lot of people in their cause.

In Asia, organizers of the Indonesian Youth Conference 2010 spent months promoting the event to youth in the country. They utilized their Facebook account with 23,000 fans and Twitter account with 4,500 followers to connect to young people. Through these two social networking tools, the organizers encouraged young people to engage in discussions by posting provocative questions twice a week. The organizers also promoted the conference's website, which allowed people to sign up and post their opinions in the Write Your Aspiration! column. Right before the event took place, the website had a discussion board and 1,200 active online contributors who communicated through the column.

The United Nations system has also used social media to connect with more people. Helen Clark, Head of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), just launched her Twitter account: her Twitter handle is @HelenClarkUNDP. Like the UN Chronicle, UNDP has an official Facebook account to inform people about their programmes and products. Many other UN offices also utilize social networking websites such as Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, and Twitter.

We can see from these facts that social media is one of the most effective tools for bringing people together and catalysing positive change. Nevertheless, there is still a wide digital divide between developed and developing countries in terms of using and accessing communications technology. In 2009, only 5 per cent of people worldwide had broadband internet at home. In Africa, only 5 per cent of its entire population went online in 2007. Therefore, using social media to connect with people in developing countries is less efficient. This should be a reason for young people in developed countries to try to connect and exchange ideas with youth leaders in developing countries who have Internet access. In turn, these youth leaders should be able to spread their message and create positive movements in their respective countries.

Fortunately, by the end of 2008, there was a big rise in the number of mobile phone subscriptions in the world. There were 4.1 billion subscriptions, with 60 per cent of the users in developing countries. A survey conducted by TakingITMobile has also shown that youth use mobile phones to generate citizen media. As its name suggests, citizen media is content generated by private citizens who disseminate their messages globally to fundraise, raise awareness, and spread solidarity. As surveyed, 27 per cent of the participants have been using their mobile phones to connect to social media. Therefore, young people who live in developing countries should be able to use social media through their mobile phones if accessing the Internet from home is too difficult.

Social media is an effective communications tool for youth activists. Youth in developed countries have proven this, and developing countries should create more access to social media tools in order to enable more people to create change.

References

Gray, Steph and Jennings, Rebecca. How are young people using social media? , Cambridge: Forrester Research, 2008.

MacInnis, Laura. "Mobile phone growth helps poorer states: U.N.," Reuters.com, 2 March 2009, Retrieved 9 October 2010 from: http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE5211GJ20090302.

Salazar, Lisa. "Youth, Mobile Phones & Social Change," Retrieved 9 October 2010 from: http://www.mobilerevolutions.org/takingitmobile_survey.
United Nations. World Youth Report 2007 , Retrieved 15 September 2010 from: http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/unyin/documents/wyr07_complete.pdf.