In February 2018, a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, resulted in a group of student survivors raising their voices for school safety and gun control, refusing to let the incident be remembered as just another tragedy. New-media tools gave them great leverage to amplify their voices and influence with local and national lawmakers. Their bold action, consolidated on social media around the hashtag #NeverAgain, gained nationwide attention. Celebrities showed support for the movement, and ordinary individuals joined their protests. School walkouts were organized in several cities across the country, in which thousands of students took part. The Parkland students’ activism demonstrates how young people, often sidelined from political institutions because they can’t vote, can turn into powerful civic actors and drive social change on a large scale.
The digital realm, however, is adversarial at the same time as it is rich with resources and opportunities. “In a digital realm,” as Harvard professor Danielle Allen puts it, “anyone can change in an instant from a private to a fully public person, from being a kid doing homework to a celebrity.” Allen also adds, “Whereas child and teen actors have whole teams of people to help them think about their public persona, and how celebrity distorts one’s personal life, young civic agents who experience this phenomenon are infrequently prepared for it.” Some might fall prey to fabricated news, hostility, and personal attacks from anonymous sources. Furthermore, deep partisan fissures fuel anxiety and animosity surrounding student activism.
How can teachers help students protect themselves from those new kinds of dangers and achieve their civic-political aspirations? Question 2 in the 10 Questions Framework (“How much should I share?”) helps students prepare for the pitfalls of digital platforms. It is important that students give forethought to their “public persona” and to the question of how much of their personal lives they would like to give over to the public sphere. This lesson also orients students to think about the difference between voice and influence in relation to Question 8, prompting them to reflect on the lessons they can draw from the Parkland students as they embark on their own paths of civic engagement.