Last week I was privileged to join with several fantastic leaders for a special event led by Wired Human called Youth On The Hill in Washington, D.C.. It was a unique opportunity for about 40 students and leaders (ages 11–25) to share their perspectives on how the Internet and social media have affected them. Some of them prepared speeches, chosen for a congressional roundtable attended by tech and legislative leaders. Some of them participated in a press conference with Senators Blumenthal and Blackburn, co-authors of the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA). Some of them met with a White House Task Force to Address Online Harassment and Abuse. And throughout the event, dozens of them overcame intimidation by visiting congressional offices and personally advocating for better legal protections regarding minors and the online world.
My big takeaways:
1. Teens are crystal clear about how 24-7 access to unlimited content and addictive algorithms are messing up their generation.
This is because horror stories abound. But sometimes they had difficulty identifying how they have been changed as individuals by the intentional efforts of Big Tech to turn their phone or gaming usage into big profits.
In prep for the event, one homework assignment was to listen to a podcast interview by Healthy Screen Habits with Frances Haugen, aka “The Facebook Whistleblower.” Prior to this interview, most of the students were completely unaware of Haugen’s heroic and historic action calling for Meta to be held accountable for the ways they intentionally prioritized profits over safety. The students had a lot of lightbulb moments after learning this inside information.
When we heard the rough draft versions of the student’s speeches detailing their disdain for the exploitation of their generation, our group of leaders and students clapped, cheered, and even cried (ok, that was me). THEY ARE WAKING UP. They are not going along with the program anymore, they want change… they know they need change.
2. Students want to talk about the wrongs that have been done to them online.
With some mentoring and coaching, students were equipped to effectively share their stories in front of total strangers who hold influence in “the halls of power.” As students went to Senate and Representative offices, they bravely shared about how they had been bullied, traumatized by pornography, and watched younger siblings being groomed. They made powerful connections about how getting sucked into Instagram at 11 kept them from developing social skills, learning sports, and succeeding in school. Though they dreaded that first office visit, by the end they were disappointed they couldn’t keep going. They learned to see themselves differently and they grew in confidence before my very eyes!
3. Mentorship is key.
One of my very favorite moments happened during our casual cafeteria lunch between office visits. Our small group was joined that day by John Frendl, a tech leader and mentor who went to legislative offices with us. Over lunch, he took the time to encourage these students in very meaningful and intentional ways regarding what they are capable of and how valuable they are! This group of public high school students could easily see themselves as “less than” the typical archetype of an influential youth. But John made them feel strong and important and truly cared for. I absolutely loved every moment with these 3 kids. They were unassuming and were there for no other reason than not wanting other kids to go through what they had! They were teachable, curious, humble, and honorable in every way. They listened and they learned with great intention. They just needed adults to give them some tools, some understanding, and some encouragement. They want to make good choices and make the world a better place. I’m so glad I live in the same city as them so I can see them again!
4. ‘Mean Mom’ is not forever.
One highlight for me was having my 19-year-old son join the DC event to share his story and fight for kids. He was test subject #1 when we started Parents Who Fight and convinced the majority of his friends’ parents to wait on social media and smartphones. He got both much later than all the kids at school. He felt like an outsider sometimes. He argued and pushed us. But now… he is a fine young man who is thankful he had a childhood without the depression and anxiety that comes with the early adoption of addictive technology. He engaged lawmakers with ease, a strong fighter with clear convictions. He was a hard one to raise, but we always stood our ground. We were committed to what was best for him in the long run over his short-term happiness. Thankfully he chose to receive the wisdom in that and is now strong-willed for the right things. Parents, you can do this. They need and want your leadership. Don’t give up! (And pray like crazy.)
My heart is full of hope and fire after engaging leaders and youth on these topics. We won’t stop. The momentum is on our side. Just this week, 42 attorneys general brought a lawsuit against Meta in a bipartisan show of force to bring accountability for the intentional harm and addiction the social media giant has brought to our youth. These students are awake and there are more waking up every day.