Pandemic participation: youth activism online in the COVID-19 crisis

Now that the civic space is a digital space, if only temporarily, what can we expect of youth digital civic engagement in the months ahead?

Zoë Pelter
14 April 2020
Expert perspective  |  4 minute read

#Climatestrike has become #climatestrikeonline following a call from youth activist Greta Thunberg for climate strikers to take to the internet and not the streets during the COVID-19 pandemic. In China, students have taken to social media to raise money for medical workers at the frontline of the pandemic response. Misinformation about COVID-19 has led to a surge in youth engagement with chatbots to find validated medical information. In Algeria, as protesters have moved indoors, youth platforms have been repurposed to encourage citizens to ‘stay home’ during the outbreak. And around the world,  teenagers have taken part in TikTok’s ‘Ghen Cô Vy’ dance challenge to promote good hand washing practices (and in some cases, good dancing!). As Covid-19 forces the world indoors, young citizens have embraced digital media to make their voices heard and spur collective action when the world needs it most.

Quang Đăng

For many young people, however, this offline-online continuum is already an everyday feature of modern civic engagement, one which facilitates their participation in individual or collective actions to improve the well-being of their communities or societies. Recent UNICEF analysis finds that many adolescents and young people use digital spaces to develop their civic identities and express political stances in creative ways, claiming agency that may not be afforded to them in traditional civic spaces. Now that the civic space is a digital space, if only temporarily, what can we expect of youth digital civic engagement in the months ahead?


A moment to speak… and be heard?

Though it may seem counterintuitive, digitisation of civic action during the pandemic may provide more equitable access to adolescents and young people than traditional forms of activism — as it does in more normal times. Digital technology offers young people a low-barrier-to-entry platform to create content — content that can reach scales and types of audience young people don’t have access to in everyday life.  And, as demonstrated by many songs, dance challenges or playful — and informative — public service announcements filmed by children in the last few weeks, children and young people’s engagement might not look like ‘traditional’ civic engagement. Adolescents and young people are already much more likely to use humour, memes and satire to remix popular culture for advocacy and engagement. Yet these acts are sometimes dismissed as acts of ‘clicktivism’ and are not considered to be ‘real’ civic acts. Amidst COVID-19 social isolation, there may well be room for recognition of the universal appeal and importance of comedy and creativity for impactful participatory action — a lesson many adults are re-learning as they self-quarantine.

After a year marked by youth-led protests, there may be opportunities to be seized by organised youth movements as well. With #Climatestrikes participation numbers falling before the pandemic, this may well be an opportunity for youth movements to re-group and re-galvanise. And this moment is not just for already established movements. As we see with current youth action in China, the scale and novelty of the COVID-19 pandemic may give rise to unprecedented action by younger generations. While this fledgling online movement may have sprung up in reaction to a very specific set of circumstances, studies show that young people who engage in digital participatory politics are much more likely to engage in ‘real’ offline political participation such as voting. As the pandemic stretches on, we should be ready to consider how to recognize, support and sustain civic activity by young people that has been stimulated by their online experiences.



Will old dilemmas take on new dimensions in the current climate?

Opportunities for youth digital participation, it seems, are bigger than ever. But so too are the risks and dilemmas that come with it.

We know that children online face harassment and trolling even in better times, and warnings are widespread that mass home-schooling due to COVID-19 will exacerbate these risks. Are new approaches needed to provide online safety and protection? Simultaneously, we are seeing a high prevalence of disinformation, which many children and young people can’t yet discern. And even access to misinformation assumes that children and young people have equitable access to technology, and we know this is not the case (even in countries where you might expect it). Digital literacy programmes are often most effective when embedded in school curricula; now that millions of children are out of school, how can we roll out digital literacy programmes quickly and effectively? Finally, the global pandemic response is increasingly characterized by phone surveillance and data monitoring for contact tracing of the COVID-19 virus, and so it is particularly important to strike the balance between privacy and greater good. How can we prevent this crisis from being a path to new, permanent modes of digital surveillance of children and young people, particularly for those who chose to speak their views online?

These challenges will be considerable for accessible and safe digital youth civic engagement. But even faced with these issues, those in the civic space can start to consider how to encourage young people to keep engaging even after the initial pandemic response recedes. Because, if we can capture the civic energy of the moment, there is big potential for adolescents and young people to have their say well beyond the difficult days ahead.  


For practical advice on engaging adolescents and young people in the COVID-19 response, see UNICEF’s tips. And for more information about digital civic engagement by young people, read our report.