Why young people protest and how to support them

In this article we’ll cover:

What is activism?Why do young people protest?How can you keep your teen safe when they choose to protest?How can you support your teen’s activism?

Whether it's standing up for climate action, LGBTQIA+ rights or other big issues, young people are often at the forefront of social change. For parents and carers, it can be tricky to know how to support your teen’s involvement in causes they care about while also encouraging them to be safe. Learn more about what activism is, why young people protest, and practical ways to support your teen’s activism.

A group of young people marching in a protest, some holding signs in the background.

What is activism?

By understanding what activism is, you can better understand why your teen is so passionate about protesting against a particular issue or supporting a certain cause. 

‘Activism’ refers to direct and intentional actions that challenge power structures, dynamics and figureheads to influence positive change in society. It usually centres around movements for justice or reform, but it can mean a range of different things – from in-person protests (also referred to as demonstrations or rallies) to consumer boycotts and petitions.

Advocacy vs activism – what’s the difference?

While advocacy and activism share similar aims of effecting change in society, their approaches are different and you can participate in both.

Advocacy: Advocates work within existing systems, using tools like lobbying, legal action and public speaking to influence decision makers. They seek change by persuading those in power to join a cause.

Activism: Activists often operate outside of established systems. They engage in direct action, such as protests, sit-ins and public displays of dissent. Activism aims to disrupt the status quo and to draw attention to critical issues.

There are times when advocacy and activism will overlap, such as when a grassroots, community-led movement is taken up by local or state government representatives. This is often based on timing, interest and resources.

Why do young people protest?

When young people care deeply about an issue and take action to try to bring about change, this can have a positive impact on their mental wellbeing and emotional state – particularly if they are feeling sad or distressed about the issue. 

Here are some reasons why young people protest:

  • to connect with their community around shared values or causes

  • to have a sense of belonging, by contributing to a purpose greater than themselves

  • as a result of influence from peers or role models, including experiencing peer pressure 

  • because they are intrinsically motivated to do something positive to bring about change

  • because they feel unable to stand by and do nothing.

Ultimately, the reasons why young people protest will be different for each person. Knowing why it’s important to your teen can help you to better support their activism.

What social causes are young people typically drawn to?

While there’s no shortage of social causes for young people to get behind, the type of activism they’ll be drawn to will depend on a range of factors. 

Some common social causes are:

It can feel overwhelming for some young people when they care about many different causes. If you find this is the case with your teen, helping them to understand their values and any commonality between the causes they care about can make them feel more grounded. Encouraging them to connect with communities formed around those shared values and causes, which can generate a sense of collective hope, can also help to counter your teen’s feelings of distress. It’s also important to encourage them to engage with other things in their life that they enjoy. 

In some cases, it can be helpful for them to talk about how they’re feeling with a close friend, counsellor or another type of professional, depending on what sort of support they may need.

What is performative activism, and why does it matter to young people?

Performative activism, also known as ‘slacktivism’, refers to tokenistic displays of support without any genuine commitment to creating meaningful change. 

Examples of this are big corporations and organisations that might say they support all women on International Women’s Day but still have a large gender pay gap among their staff. At an individual level, a person might say publicly that they support a group or a cause but then don’t back that up with any meaningful support (or they do something harmful to the cause they claim to care about). Young people want to see accountability and integrity from those who lead and have the power to influence positive change. 

How do social media and activism affect teens’ political views?

Social media can play a significant role in shaping young people’s social and political perspectives. It can be a powerful tool for activism, particularly for marginalised voices that don’t get heard through the mainstream media. 

Social media also provides access to information, advocacy and activism for young people who aren’t able to access in-person events. Platforms like Instagram and TikTok, in particular, have become instrumental in sharing and documenting information about different causes and movements in real time. 

However, social media algorithms can create echo chambers, where users are only exposed to content that aligns with their existing beliefs. This can lead to a skewed understanding of the world, as diverse perspectives may be overlooked.

As a parent or carer, it's crucial to encourage your teen to approach social media and other news sources with a critical eye. Encourage them to seek information from a variety of sources to ensure they have a well-rounded understanding of current events and issues. 

How can you keep your teen safe when they choose to protest?

One of the main concerns you might have if your teen is attending protests is for their safety. Whether you agree or disagree with the cause they care about, or with their group of friends, keeping communication open, honest and respectful is an important way to help keep your teen safe. Here are some tips to get started:

  • Discuss the practical details of the protest – who, what, when, where and how – so that you’re both on the same page.

  • Encourage them to have a safety plan in case things don’t go as expected. This can include a meeting point, a safety contact, or a message to send you if they need your help.

  • Help them to understand their legal rights when protesting. They might think this is boring, but it’s important for them to know what their rights are.

How can you support your teen’s activism?

Here are a few things you can do to support your teen, regardless of how you feel about their activism. 

Practise active listening

Understanding their passion and concerns in a genuine way, and not patronising your teen, can help them feel supported and encourage them to keep communicating with you, rather than going behind your back.

Get educated together

Learn about the causes they care about and engage them in conversations about these issues. You could suggest that you listen to a podcast or watch a documentary on the topic together, attend a talk or read a book, and then talk about what you both learnt.

Encourage them to think critically 

Help them to analyse information and develop informed opinions. This could be by sharing resources that outline how to think critically or by looking at information together and asking questions in a supportive way.

Provide emotional support 

Acknowledge your teen’s feelings and provide them with emotional support. Being passionate about causes can be emotionally confronting for young people, especially if things seem like they’ll never change. 

Young people’s activism can contribute positively to their mental and emotional wellbeing. As a parent or caregiver, you can foster open dialogue and critical thinking, encourage empathy, and help them to build resilience while supporting their passion for creating a better world. 

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