Teenage delinquents or digital activists?

One of my first experiences with activism was within a school setting, when I was involved in the presenting of a petition against the dress code in 2019. It was circulated through social media as a Google Docs link and then forwarded to the headteacher. Unknown to me, this had become an increasingly frequent occurrence across the country over the past 20 years.

Children and teenagers are gaining political agency through the rise of social media, and its ability to promote activist communication. Henceforth, school protesting is on the rise. I however, wanted to explore the reasons behind the starkly negative nature of newspaper coverage on school protests. How is young people becoming politically active a negative occurrence?

Through a newspaper analysis of 107 accounts between Sept 2021 to July 2023;

  • 84.1% (90) we classified as neutral
    • This included newspapers reporting a fact-oriented story; primarily appearing to be exclusively local newspapers, lacking the political freedom to publish differently.
  • 15.9% (17) we classified as ‘pushing an agenda’
    • This included both negative and positive accounts, using language as a means to portray the story under a certain light. Upon further analysis 12 out of the 17 accounts were from national newspapers. As opposed to local, national newspapers which have larger audiences, have the political freedom to produce ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ accounts. Alongside this, they hold the most audience influence with their vast coverage and therefore are crucial to study in the development of stereotypes and representations in the print media.

Of the 15.9% ‘pushing an agenda’, a staggering 82.4% were classified as negative accounts. We allocated a negative newspaper as either criminalising; placing young people as criminals; overtly violent or breaking the law by missing school or ageist; removing children’s political agency by disregarding their protests as adolescent behaviour or blaming social media as a protest enabler trend instead of legitimising each protest as a singular account.

Evidently, when school protests are portrayed in the mass media, they’re not commending young activism, they’re condemning it. Children are repeatedly ignored as a valid political group, henceforth school protests are dismissed as misbehaviour. Even with social media enforcing new and exciting avenues for political participation, social media activism is often demonised by newspapers.

As a result of increased student political participation, the education minister recently bid for a ban on phones in schools to improve student behaviour. Ironically, Williamson has recently resigned from parliament after being criticised for cyber-bullying one of his peers.

Going forward, social media should be legitimised as an integral mode of activism in the digital age. It allows the globalisation of activist issues, broadcasted to all audiences regardless of age. With under 18’s restricted from civil political participation, social media remains crucial for the development of individual young political consciousnesses. Additionally, the ability to organise and plan protests easily through social media enables young people to speak up against miscarriages of justice. Where the infamous ‘Tiktok protests’ in early 2023 were demonised through newspaper coverage for being a ‘mass media induced trend’, it resulted in teacher awareness around key issues in schools and in some cases, rule changes due to the protests.

Overall, young activism is frequently illegitimated by newspapers, and as a consequence, school protests fall under this. To compare both the adult and school striking that took place in early 2023;  neither were commended however the former was published as a legitimated occurrence and the latter was simply teenage delinquency.

It seems that young people’s incorporation of social media into activist pursuits has produced an excuse for newspapers to invalidate young activism. They’re not brainwashed by social media; they’re using it to their advantage.

Blog post by Susie White (CUROP Student, Cardiff University)

Image Credit: DanielVilleneuve via iStock