“My middle schooler has a few tiny things on his mind lately… you know, like the Delta variant and the climate crisis,” a parent recently shared. She went on, “Honestly, things are pretty existential in our house right now…and I just feel so powerless to help. How can I even reassure him when his worries are so big and so real?”
Parents and kids alike are overwhelmed by calls for renewed COVID vigilance due to the Delta variant and ongoing uncertainty on a global scale. More than eighteen months into the pandemic, we have certainly learned some profound lessons about the ways that our personal concerns (even the health of our cells) are inextricably linked to our collective ones. This has not been lost on young people.
Many teens spent the last school year at home, tethered to their electronic devices. Their experiences, however, were shaped in profound ways by systems and policies well beyond the confines of their rooms. While their ability to socialize may have been limited, their social awareness was not. They have been scrolling through current events, making observations in their communities, and sharing stories and content online.
The good news is that while chronic doomscrolling is certainly a recipe for poor mental health, not all online activity puts kids on an inevitable road towards existential crisis. Online activity can be an on-ramp for something that can help them feel better: purposeful participation in public life.
Whether in school, in our neighborhoods or on broader scales, it turns out that adults can do something more powerful than just reassuring kids that things will be okay. They can listen to young people’s concerns and create meaningful, equitable, and age-appropriate links between their personal concerns and public solutions.
“While young people’s ability to socialize may have been limited, their social awareness was not. They have been scrolling through current events, making observations in their communities, and sharing stories and content online.”
The case for digital on-ramps to participation
While many lament that young people today are obsessed with entertainment and games over substance, the latest studies paint a different picture. Far from being limited to so-called “slacktivism” online, research shows that young people who seek information and who produce and share content online are more likely than their peers to participate in civic life. This is not to say that young people aren’t navigating significant risks including exploitation, hate speech, or misinformation online. But it turns out that clicking, sharing, and liking are likely not a substitute for action – instead they are correlated with offline participation.
This is a good thing for youth. Research shows that participating in civic life can cultivate a sense of agency, wellbeing, and purpose. Far from frivolous psychological tasks, these are core developmental needs for young people. Teens who experience purpose, for example, are better able to manage stress and are more resilient, optimistic, and motivated in the face of challenge.
In other words, finding meaningful answers to, “Why?” and, “For what?” and, “With whom?” has the power to shape everything from young people’s academic performance to their mental health. Unfortunately, too few young people experience purpose. Dr. Kendall Bronk, who has spent much of her career studying the path to purpose, calls it a “beneficial but rare experience” for most youth.
“Whether in schools, neighborhoods or on broader scales, it turns out that adults can do something more powerful than reassure kids that things will be okay. They can listen to young people’s concerns and make meaningful, equitable, and age-appropriate links between their personal concerns and public solutions.”
Linking personal concerns to purposeful action
The challenge is that we can’t just teach young people purpose, agency, and belonging. We have to listen for it and create experiences that cultivate it. Kids deserve time, experiences, invitations, and support throughout childhood and adolescence to find their voices, identify their passions, and take action around the things they care about.
As we set our sights on an uncertain school year in an uncertain world, it’s no surprise that many of us would rather crawl back to bed than consider purposeful action. But all this research indicates that young people might benefit from invitations to balance self-care with collective care.
So let’s not lose sight of the ingredients we can be attending to during this time. Dr. Ellen Middaugh, who studies youth civic engagement and voice online and offline, shares three key beneficial tasks:
- Find your voice
- Find your passion
- Find your community
The incredible thing about these tasks is that they aren’t limited to advocacy on the international stage. Children can find their voice within their family system or classroom when they share feedback or help create a set of agreements. Kids can identify their passions or “sparks” in sports, arts, community or cultural groups, afterschool programs, online or offline. We can all work to identify the places where our private concerns overlap with others in our workplaces, schools, neighborhoods, and broader communities and take action together to find just solutions.
Here’s the point. These tasks don’t involve a prescribed outcome or context. They just need to be real. And kids can’t do them alone.
A critical message young people deserve at this time: You are invited. We are listening.
In her research, Dr. Ellen Middaugh dispels a couple of myths about young people and public action. While some attribute ebbs and flows in youth participation as a reflection of either laziness or public-spiritedness, Dr. Middaugh argues that the key variable is opportunity.
Young people participate more when they are invited to do so. When young people invite their peers into movements they are more likely to jump in. When adults speak directly to kids and youth and then take action on behalf of or alongside them related to their concerns (large or small), they are more likely to participate. For an invitation to be meaningful, we need to work hard to remove barriers to participation for young people whose voices are rarely at the center. We all benefit from full participation.
It is certainly heartbreaking to witness our kids’ concerns grow and expand to include global systems or intractable social problems. It is absolutely our job to protect kids in any way we can from sources of toxic stress and to make sure that we aren’t asking kids to solve entrenched problems without adult participation and support.
But the research invites us to consider that in the face of real challenges, young people deserve more than just our reassurance – they deserve pathways to purposeful action so they can influence the outcomes themselves.
Tips for Getting Started:
Listen. Just because your tween or teen is learning about things online (even in the form of memes or TikTok videos) does not mean it doesn’t reflect a real concern or interest. Ask questions, express genuine curiosity about their opinions, listen to their ideas, and support them as they navigate the risks and opportunities of participation. Remember, what they care passionately about may or may not mirror your interests.
Model it. Model ways that you follow up on the issues you learn about online on small and large scales. This not only models meaningful participation but can help them understand how you build bridges between personally meaningful concerns and collective action.
Focus on strengths. Mirror back young people’s strengths to them and help them brainstorm ways that they can apply these strengths to the issues they care about. What problems concern them? How can they bring their strengths, identities, and gifts to that problem to help generate just solutions?
Nurture a village. Young people benefit from being in relationship with purposeful, caring adults who can help them identify their strengths and connect them to broader issues, activities, or movements.
Dismantle barriers. Identify the ways in which race, class, disability, language, and geography shape access to young people’s participation in your communities. In every sphere of influence you have, work to ensure that all young people have the opportunity to share their voices and participate in the systems that impact them.
Prioritize media literacy. We should take seriously the risks that young people navigate as they participate in online activities. Practice being your teen’s digital mentor, use Common Sense Media’s News and Media Literacy resources, advocate for media literacy curricula at school and explore youth-centered media production opportunities in your community.
Look for authentic invitations. Look for spaces, programs, and activities online and offline where young people’s voices are centered and they are asked to contribute, build community, and impact outcomes. Introduce them as options to your teen. This could be at school, in your neighborhood, place of worship, or community or government programs.
“The research invites us to consider that in the face of real challenges, young people deserve more than our reassurance – they deserve pathways to purposeful action so they can influence the outcomes themselves.”