In an era defined by a perfect storm of challenges—ongoing racial injustice, a global pandemic, and a high-stakes election, to name a few—young people have revolutionized how they engage with their communities and the world. Teens and tweens utilized social media platform TikTok to shrink numbers at a Trump rally. On fancast sites and YouTube platforms, they’ve monetized well-performing content and donated the proceeds to anti-racist organizations.
While today’s social and economic realities are hitting young people hard, tweens are highly engaged in digital activism in an era when access to information and tools for change are at their fingertips.
“This pandemic, combined with a recession, is probably the worst thing that has ever happened, ever,” lamented a young member of Austin Public Library’s (APL) tween council. Still, given their exposure to social media from an early age, plus additional time online during COVID education shifts, today’s tweens are more conscious of news and world affairs than ever, say educators and librarians. Those educators are in a unique position to help young people between the ages of nine and 12 find and use tools to express themselves.
Amy Oelsner, director of Girls Rock Bloomington in Bloomington, IN, a camp and music organization for girls, trans, and nonbinary youth from ages eight to sixteen, says that today’s tweens are far more aware of what’s going on than even five years ago. The biggest passions for her students, primarily middle-class white tweens, are climate change, LGBTQ+ rights, and racism.
“[They’re using social media for] sharing information about protests,” Oelsner says. “Instagram, TikTok. They’re inspired by identity politics.” Girls Rock has helped by connecting interested tweens via social media with local events and protests, including climate change strikes.
Classroom time provides an opportunity for Oelsner to encourage that activism. Careful to avoid engaging directly with tweens on social media herself, the music educator implements assignments and projects related to social justice passion points.
“I’m teaching a virtual songwriting and social justice class for ages eight to twelve, and they’re performing original protest songs at a digital showcase,” she says. Though heartened by her students’ passion, Oelsner notes that keeping an open dialog with parents and caregivers is crucial as educators help steer such initiatives.
“Let their parents or guardians know that you will be discussing sensitive material like police shootings of Black people and violence against Black Lives Matter protesters at protests, and make sure to check in on the kid about it if possible,” she says.
Black Lives Matter (BLM) and mental health are among the biggest passion topics for tweens at the Ypsilanti District (MI) Library, says Jodi Krahnke, head of youth services, who oversees tween and teen advisory meetings. Only the teen group is meeting during the pandemic, but tweens have attended, skewing the average age lower.
Currently, they are working on a digital activism project called Teens Believe BLM. “They have created flyer templates on Canva for images, messages, booklists, and QR codes they can share as jpegs, flyers, or on the library website,” says Krahnke. The flyers will be distributed digitally via social media; printed versions were included in monthly subscription bags for patrons. “Advisory members pick the theme of the bag, a book, and the contents,” says Krahnke. The first two themes are social justice and mental health/self-care.
“In the Social Justice kit, they included All American Boys, BLM face masks, and social justice message stickers and pins, with a read-alike booklist and ‘how to talk to your family about race’ tips they generated.” For the upcoming mental health theme, “They are including The Poet X, chocolate, positive message pins, a journal and gel pens, eye masks, and some other self-care tips,” Krahnke explains.
Though the library has a dedicated teen Instagram account, tweens use a wide variety of their own social media tools to amplify Teens Believe BLM. “TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram, and Discord are most used right now. That’s where they interact and get news, along with Reddit,” says Krahnke.
Krahnke and her team work with a local teen center, the Neutral Zone, and follow its guidelines and ideas for youth-driven initiatives and spaces. The Neutral Zone’s Youth Driven Spaces staff coach educators on empowering young people and fostering their passions and voices in a safe, supportive environment. The library’s teen activists have attended the organization’s annual conference to network with other southeast Michigan youth who are passionate about activism.
Youth Driven Spaces is teen-focused, but Krahnke says the ideas apply to tweens as well, with a few adjustments. “The same principles of amplifying youth voices can be used, but tweens need more support in making ideas happen,” she says. “Older teens can not only brainstorm what they want to happen but take tasks to complete a project on their own, while tweens need to be assigned tasks they can complete mostly during the meeting,” she explains. “Our tween advisory is typically nine- to thirteen-year-olds, so we haven’t focused a lot on branding and social media with them…. But on any project for either age group, digital or not, brainstorming as a group and then making a list of tasks members can take on is the first step.”
Support from a local activist organization has been pivotal in shaping how the library encourages action in tweens and teens. “Before we signed on for Youth Driven Spaces training, our projects tended to focus on the library and what programs or services teens thought should be offered,” says Krahnke. “Now the type of brainstorming techniques we use prompt them to think about the community as well. In recent years they’ve seen a need for reducing suicide, improving mental health, providing spaces for youth to meet and create, and raising environmental awareness.”
Promoting body positivity
Chances are that any community has local activists eager to educate and energize young people. Following local activists and mutual aid organizations, as well as student and youth-focused groups within your own community, is a good way to build connections between your organization and those on the ground doing the work already.
For Amy Pence Brown, a body image activist in Boise, ID, building a partnership with the Boise Public Library (BPL) gave a large group of tweens the opportunity to learn about and engage in work related to the issue.
“Researchers, doctors, and parents all have found that it’s during our preteen and teenage years and puberty that ideas about our bodies can be really solidified,” says Pence Brown, who began running annual body image boot camps—RADCAMP—for teens and adults in 2017. “It’s a crucial time of change and growth and discovery about who we are. It’s also a time when beliefs are formed and ideas are fluid, and anything is possible.”
In 2020, Pence Brown took the concept and launched Be RAD! Be You: A Body Image Workshop for Girls ages 10 to 12 at BPL. With volunteer members of her own Rad Fat Collective, she offered the one-day workshop in person in January prior to COVID shutdowns. The workshop was open to 20 girls and filled up quickly.
“We spent a few hours together learning about self-esteem, body image, and using our words and voices to make positive change in the world,” she says. All activities, supplies, a book to take home—Sonya Renee Taylor’s book Celebrate Your Body!—were free, thanks to a donation from a Rad Fat Collective member.
Though Pence Brown’s annual RADCAMP events were canceled in 2020, Zoom provided an opportunity to continue connecting and inspiring young activists. She hopes to bring Be RAD! Be You back to the library in late 2021.
Tweens’ social media use
Most social media platforms are designed and limited to those ages 13 and up, a result of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. While most social media platforms have designed kid-friendly alternatives, many who are under 13 still access the full versions of their favorite social media.
Research in 2020 showed that 42 percent of nine- to twelve-year-olds had their own smartphones, while 54 percent had their own tablets. Most of these devices were purchased by parents for meeting educational, recreational, and social needs. During the tween years, access to devices increases: Only about 20 percent of nine-year-olds had devices, but roughly two-thirds of 12-years-olds had one.
The same study of more than 1,000 tweens found that 67 percent said YouTube was their favorite form of social media, followed by Minecraft, Roblox, Google Classroom, Fortnite, TikTok, and YouTube Kids. About 15 percent used Snapchat, Facebook Messenger Kids, and Instagram, with fewer using Facebook and Twitch.
Remember, though, that not all tweens are interested in or excited by social media. Some are wary of the privacy implications. As an APL Tween Council member says, “I really don’t use social media a lot because I know that big technology corporations track me. They know what I’m doing and when I’m doing it.”
Still, digital tween activism continues to be a budding area of interest for schools and libraries. Tap into local organizations doing the work, online and off, and work to cultivate meaningful community partnerships to take that activism beyond the physical building and into the greater world. Tweens know what’s going on. It’s a matter of being shown the tools, techniques, and methods for advancing their voices and passions.
Kelly Jensen is an editor at Book Riot and has edited two YA anthologies. Her book blog is “Stacked.”