Negativity online is contagious. So is kindness.
This week I joined a group of amazing education leaders and student activists to host a worldwide online event on rethinking digital citizenship. The event was designed to call attention to the fact that we need a much deeper conversation about how to help young people be their best selves in the virtual world. Part of that conversation is understanding that the same tools that can be used to bully and spread hate can also be used to uplift and spread light. The determination in how they will be used rests with us. As part of the event, the amazing Sanah Jivani, a student at the University of Pennsylvania, shared her powerful story about helping make the internet a better place. She graciously agreed to share it here.
What is the most uplifting experience you’ve ever had? How about the most painful? In my case, both of these experiences happened online. How is it possible that the same technology that helps us feel loved and connected can also cause us to feel more alone and disconnected than ever before? And what can we do about it?
At 12 years old, I woke up one morning to find all of my hair on my pillow. It had all fallen out overnight. Turns out, I had a hair loss condition called Alopecia. It is hard to find words to describe how devastating this experience was for a girl in middle school. I immediately bought a wig to cover up my insecurity and hurt.
As hard as that day was, the days that followed were far worse. I soon discovered that an online “burn page” had been created about me to guess all of the reasons why I was now wearing a wig. I was mortified. I read comments such as “maybe she’s doing it all so people will finally like her” or “she probably just wants attention.” These words echoed through my head, as I scrolled through the page, every word somehow more painful than the last.
This experience taught me a powerful lesson: People said mean things to me, but the things I said to myself were worse. I knew I had to start by changing the language in my head. That gave me the courage to take a very bold step and remove my wig. In what I now consider to be one of the best days of my life, I shared a video of myself online without my wig — showing the world that I wasn’t ashamed to be me.
When you have the courage to be who you are, you often unknowingly inspire the same in others. When people saw me share my story, they began to open up about their own challenging experiences. We created an online community of hope and support. Hearing their stories changed my life, and I knew I had to keep sharing my story.
When I put on a wig to mask what had happened to me, social media made me feel far from myself. When I exposed my balding head, I was proud to be myself and felt supported by an amazing digital community.
“Every young person deserves an online community of supporters who make them feel safe and included”
Every young person deserves an online community of supporters who make them feel safe and included — one that encourages them to be their full selves. It is imperative that, as we broaden our conversation about digital citizenship, we talk about how we can create inclusive and accepting online communities. To help make that happen, I’ve created an online movement called the International Day of Self-Love. This day takes place on February 13, the day before Valentine’s Day, because it is important to love and accept yourself before you can do the same for others. I encourage everyone to show up on this day fully using #DayOfSelfLove.
At the DigCitCommit virtual congress, we started a conversation to bring light to important ideas. Here are four key ideas that we should not forget.
1. Keep young people at the center of the conversation.
During the DigCitCommit Virtual Congress, young people were at the forefront, leading the conversation about digital citizenship. Being raised on the internet, young people have a unique perspective on the highs and lows of technology. Listening to these perspectives is what we need to create meaningful online engagement.
2. Help young people show up fully online.
When it comes to technology, students are accustomed to hearing the word “don’t.” This prevents them from showing up fully online. They have trouble feeling engaged and included. It is important to focus on all the ways the internet can be a positive outlet for young people to show up and use their voice.
3. Youth voice online can change the world.
When students show up and feel welcome in online spaces, they develop their voices and begin to speak up for others. Being informed about important social issues gives students the opportunity to speak up about these issues and create meaningful change. It is important that we encourage, support, and amplify the voices of young people.
4. This is only the beginning of the conversation.
I am grateful that ISTE led this conversation about digital citizenship, however, it is only the beginning of an ongoing conversation that needs to take place. One of the young people at the convening suggested that similar gatherings should happen around the world. We need to continue the conversation, helping create digital spaces that are inclusive, informed, engaged and balanced. Young people need the tools and resources to remain alert and engaged, so that they can continue to lead this conversation and use their voices to make a difference.
To learn more about how Sanah is making the internet a kinder place, check out her website LoveYourNaturalSelf.org