Is using Instagram enough to be an activist during COVID-19? (Image courtesy of Mohamed Mahmoud Hassan from Public Domain Pictures).
Valencia High School

Mindfulness Matters: Addressing another pandemic amongst Gen Z teens and the rise of pop-up, youth organizations

Mindfulness Matters is a column by Vivian Wang that highlights the simple ways that she maintains mindfulness and self-care through the treacherous, life-changing journey of high school. In this week’s article, Wang reflects on her experience with seeing several organizations emerge during quarantine and the social pressure that comes along with these organizations.

Along with the current COVID-19 pandemic, another pandemic sweeps Gen Z teens: the desire to start an organization.

Since mid-March when many schools transitioned to remote learning, many students, including myself, have had more time to themselves. During a typical school year, many students focus primarily on school and do not have time to lead an organization.

Students around the world finally have time to start the project that they have been itching to start and time to join organizations that they have been eager to join.

Everyone wants to be the founder of an organization.

This ambition and desire amongst Gen Z teens is a potent, double-edged sword. There are millions of self-driven teens around the world who finally have the time to start their organization. This population of self-starters has created a social pandemic where teens are expected to take initiative and start an organization.

While this ambition is heavily admired and valued, it has created a toxic online culture in which teens feel inclined to start an organization for the title and recognition.

When having this mindset, a sense of competition and a constant hunger for outdoing one another prevails over the genuine meaning of the youth-led organization.

The Psychological and Social Repercussions

As an avid user of Instagram, I have noticed that many teens are eager to start an organization. New youth-led organizations send a follow request to my personal Instagram account in hopes of receiving a “follow back” to give their organization another follower.

Gen Z teens have equated their newly formed organization’s social media presence to advocacy and social impact. Teens who have initiated their organizations in March, April, May or June are eager to start an organization with its entire foundation based on Instagram, hungry for followers on their organization’s Instagram.

In this rise of youth-led organizations, many psychological and social issues arise. The toxic culture of Instagram, especially during quarantine, leads to these repercussions. Teens, including myself, receive several Instagram follower requests from newly formed organizations.

Organizations formed over the last three months with little to no foundation or history expect users like me to follow their account back.

Additionally, it’s important to address the mentality and motivation behind why teens are eager to start their organization. Some teens feel inclined to start their own organization to gain leadership positions, while other teens are self-starters who genuinely want to contribute to their community while they have time on their hands in quarantine.

Are the intentions behind starting these organizations genuine?

The rise of youth-led organizations creates a false perception of the meaning of a youth-led organization. Many teens believe that running an Instagram account and making aesthetic posts for their organization’s Instagram means that they are changing the world.

Youths, including myself, have fallen into the trap of equating social media presence with impact.

When I was networking with my colleagues on LinkedIn, I stumbled across this comment that resonated with me deeply.

“I often hear that if you take more time managing your social media accounts than executing your actual projects, you need to sit down and question your motives. I also agree with how so many organizations have the same mission and are essentially replicating what each other is doing. I wish people sat down to think about creating distinct projects and novel ways of tackling the issue.”

This pandemic amongst teens is a nuanced situation; while students cannot do much to make an impact while quarantined, it is also equally important to address the toxic culture and mentality of starting an organization now.

As the main social media manager for my nonprofit organization, Linens N Love, I have received several direct messages sent to our Linens N Love Instagram requesting for a “shout out for shout out.”

The nature of “shout out for shout out” is toxic in its own essence because newly formed organizations see well-established organizations with larger audiences as stepping stones to gaining a wider audience.

In my personal experience with the “shout out for shout out” culture on Instagram, I originally encouraged this culture, but I soon realized how toxic this culture was. Instead of truly supporting one another’s organizations, we see the rise of quid pro quo — “I scratch your back, you scratch mine” type of environment in which one favor is exchanged for exactly one other favor.

Organizations see “shout out for shout out” opportunities as a way of supporting one another with a competitive mentality behind the scenes; there is the unspoken requirement that the organizations shout out an equal number of posts so that one teen organization does not benefit more than the other.

In hindsight, these personal experiences make me think about the provocative culture of how education systems quantify success to the extent where youths value having a title to enhance their resume over making a genuine impact on society.

The Remedy

An alternative to this toxic, online culture lies in the proposed idea of focusing less on everyone starting their own organization and instead place greater emphasis on working collaboratively together to strengthen a few organizations.

In doing so, organizations can have stronger foundations with true values and missions rather than simply starting an organization with zero foundation.

Rather than everyone starting an organization with no leadership team supporting them, we can consider the idea that organizations can thrive when there is a strong leadership team. We can magnify our impact with eager leaders who join existing organizations with the foundation already laid out for them. When considering this remedy, it is also important to consider if a pre-existing organization is already addressing the mission of the potential, new organization.

My Personal Experience

In my personal experiences with maintaining the momentum of my nonprofit organization, Linens N Love, during quarantine, we have adapted to the pandemic and are still engaging with our volunteers near and far.

While our presence on social media has heavily increased during quarantine, we do not solely use Instagram as the basis of our organization.

With our frequent team bonding calls, volunteering project initiatives, student-led publication, and social media campaigns, the Linens N Love team and I have created a melting pot of opportunities for students as we restore the volunteer opportunities that they had lost due to COVID-19.

As I’m meeting more and more self-driven youth leaders in Linens N Love each day, I have realized that everyone can make an impact when we work together collaboratively towards a few focused causes instead of all working independently in creating new, short-lived organizations.

Everyone wants to be the founder of an organization, but not everyone has to be the founder of an organization to truly catalyze change in our local and global communities.