The World Health Organisation, in a number of reports (1986 & 1987), have recognised that both civic engagement and participation are key determinants for mental health and wellbeing. Participation is important because it encourages change at the individual, community and societal level. (Baum, 2000; Collin et al., 2011c). Indeed, the Australian Research Centre for Children & Youth has identified participation as a key aspect for both identifying and measuring wellbeing. They’ve said, “Participating includes involvement with peers and the community, being able to have a voice and say on matters, and, increasingly, access to technology for social connections.
With social media becoming an increasingly important aspect of young people’s civic and political engagement (Xenos et al., 2014), there is an opportunity for understanding how social media experiences can support participation and, in turn, positively effect wellbeing. If we are to believe the graph below, there is also an opportunity for those involved in the development of social networking sites to understand why some members of their communities are NOT participating!
There are dozens of examples of how social media has been utilised to effect social change:
- Spain in 2004: Demonstrations demanding the resignation of PM José María Aznar, who had blamed the Madrid bombings on Basque separatists, were organised by text message (social network-ish).
- Moldova 2009: Protests, coordinated by text message, Facebook, and Twitter, led to the Communist Party losing power after an apparently fraudulent election.
- Ukraine 2013 – Social media was a key tool used by protesters to mobilise and frame the discourse around the “Euromaidan” protests which brought down the Yanukovych presidency.
- Ireland 2015: The Yes Equality groupings ran successful online campaigns, such as, #hometovote, which have been implicated in the success of that campaign and the passing of legislation in Ireland allowing same sex couples the right to marry.
- Campaigns like Livestrong bracelets, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, #haiti, #kony2012, #bringbackourgirls, #yesallwomen and the Red Equal Sign have all had varying levels of success, due to their “virality” online and the fact that millions of young people have become engaged and have participated in these campaigns through social media.
Online campaigns are not always successful, though:
- March 2006: Street protests, arranged by e-mail, in Belarus against alleged vote rigging by President Lukashenko rose and died away. The president then sought to gain even more control over social media.
- June 2009: Iran – A major crackdown by government forces against an uprising by the Green Movement. The protesters had coordinated their efforts using every possible technological tool to protest miscounting of votes for Mousavi.
- 2010: Thailand – The Red Shirt uprising occupied downtown Bangkok, organising online. The government quashed the protest, dispersed the protesters and killed dozens.
- March 2011 – “Day of Rage” protests in Saudi Arabia, following Arab Spring protest in Tunisia, organised over Facebook, were violently quashed by the military (apparently).
Malcolm Gladwell (2010) argues that social media activism is organisation which favours weak-tie connections for information exchange, rather than strong-tie connections which enable action. He claims, in participating online and not offline, that our energy is shifted away from organizations which encourage strategic and disciplined action. Though online participation allows ease of expression, that expression has little impact. THIS from a man who proclaims that little things can make a difference!!
Despite what Gladwell says, there is evidence that online participation has an effect and, for that matter, there is evidence that young people are engaging politically online. Two-thirds (67%) of all 18-24 year olds in the US (and nearly 75% of those young adults who use social networking sites) engaged in some sort of social network-related political activity in 2012 (Pew Research, 2013). What is clear is that young people are using social media to engage with their friends and their communities and, as participation and civic engagement are a means of promoting wellbeing on an individual, community and societal level, this is encouraging.