More and more teenagers all over the world are joining the movement to combat climate change online. The Covid summer of 2020 helped inspire thousands of Gen-Zers to get more active on the topic on social media. Renowned teen activist Greta Thunberg has 11.9 million followers on Instagram, where the hashtag #Climatechange has 5.6 million posts. That same hashtag on TikTok has 825.7 million views, and #climatecrisis has 106 million views there. These numbers are huge positives for the climate movement, and speak to the impact that the crisis has on social media networks. However, the bubble of social media often causes teens to downplay the real world of activism. The youth climate movement is dangerously close to losing itself in an echo chamber of its own creation.
Youth climate protesters often interact in spaces that are also predominantly used by other young people, lessening their audience and impact. Platforms like Tiktok and Instagram, where algorithms show posts to like-minded people, make it nearly impossible to get information to the circles that need it the most––the ones who have heard it the least. With most teenagers gaining inspiration and advice from other teen activists, many useful tactics to enact change, like emailing or calling a congressperson or senator, are being overshadowed by the easier and simpler world of online activism. Young people like me need to put more effort into working to exert influence upon traditional media sources like newspapers, radio and television stations, and major online media sites. Such more-traditional media sources are where attention to urgent information about the seriousness of climate change is most needed, yet most teens aren’t interacting or trying to be heard on those platforms.
As natural disasters caused by climate change become more dangerous and the change more irreversible, it is time for young people to get off of Tiktok and focus on platforms with larger and wider audiences. As long as teens continue to share information in closed virtual circles, vast amounts of information and peoples’ time are going to waste. Surely even in social media it must be possible to better organize to have an offline impact.
Older people generally have more power to create tangible change now. But the traditional media sources they use more heavily often have dramatically weak coverage of the crisis. Even as the past few weeks have brought unprecedented flooding, droughts, and fires across the world, most media coverage has covered the damage without acknowledging the cause. Fox News, for example, is the most watched news network in the United States. Of its viewers, 69% are aged 50 or older. Fox News is dismissive of the climate crisis in 86% of all segments that discuss it, according to a recent Public Citizen analysis. Young people have all but given up on such media spaces, but those are the people they should be fighting to educate.
This being said, there are countless valid reasons why younger climate experts and activists find it so hard to break out of the performative world of social media. The most obvious benefit (and danger) of social media is that there is little censorship and no approval is needed to post. Traditional media outlets like newspapers often have ulterior motives and agendas for the stories they choose to cover and share. Since The Washington Post is owned by Jeff Bezos, it’s understandable that climate activists aren’t submitting articles there about how Amazon emitted 60.64 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2020, according to its own calculations.
It’s easy to get lost in the world of social media, where posting is easy and dramatic statistics gain millions of likes, but the urgency of the climate crisis must force all of us to find more creative and challenging ways to save our planet. The youth movement has a lot to learn from past activists and movements, and should work hard to not discount older forms of media that will be essential to educating the world.
Julia Morgan-Canales is a 16-year-old New Yorker and Techonomy’s summer editorial intern.