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  • Tiny Rebellions:Making Young People's Voices Audible
  • Jen Harrison (bio)

Over the past two years, no single issue has come up as frequently in my classroom as "free speech." As the political and social climate in Northern America has become more and more polarized, this concept has become one of paramount importance: across campuses, students have battled for the right to voice their political and religious beliefs, but also for the right to go about their business free from speech they consider "harassment." Younger students have participated in everything from petitions to marches and sit-in protests to make their views on gun regulation known, and in ongoing conflicts about race, sexuality, and Indigenous culture, it has increasingly been the voices of the young clamouring for change. In the past, opportunities for young people to be heard were severely restricted: after all, most channels of public communication were mediated by adults, and to speak out one needed a sympathetic grown-up or two to advocate. Then, along came social media.

Social media, with its unparalleled ability to spread any utterance rapidly and widely, has played a key role in the debate about free speech: young people are now better able to make their voices heard publicly, regardless of what they want to say. While sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram are still ostensibly run and moderated by adults, they also offer young people a uniquely effective space for free public speech. On platforms such as these, young people are exercising their right to free speech with abandon, but are also coming under increasing scrutiny for what they say: are they engaging in cyberbullying? What will future employers or funding bodies think of what they say? Will they attract online firestorms or child predators? Young people are also the frequent subject of academic and popular studies decrying the effects of virtual communication and virtual lifestyles, which are held responsible for everything from declining literacy to depression. In thinking through these issues, I [End Page 1] could not help recalling Heather Snell's editorial in Jeunesse 10.1, in which free speech was central to many of her arguments about the contentious line between childhood and adulthood: in many countries, that line is determined by the extent to which the free speech of young people can and should be controlled and managed by adults who are assumed to be more experienced, more rational, and more responsible.

Incidents such as the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting or the murder of Jordan Edwards in 2017, however, teach us that this assumption is at best faulty and at worst dangerous: the voices of adults in this society are confused, partisan, ineffective, hysterical. We are also less knowledgeable than we would like to think: while many adults still struggle with how to use a smart phone and may not have heard of Snapchat or Buzzfeed, over 60% of adolescents are regular users of social media, according to the AACAP ("Social Networking"), while a study conducted by the Pew Research Center indicates that 45% of teens report being online "on a near-constant basis" ("Teens"). Young people, it seems, might not only have important things to say, but may well be more skilled at saying them than adults would like to give them credit for.

This editorial examines the potential positives of social media as a platform for what I refer to as "tiny rebellions": the small acts of public self-expression young people make in digital spaces which encourage counter-reading and counter-writing, and which constitute acts of speculative future-building in the face of "adult" impotence. Beginning with a discussion of the traditional constraints on young people's acts of public expression, it moves on to speculate about the empowering and transformative potential of young people writing in digital spaces. It is in these spaces that young people are literally reshaping the world in new and exciting ways.

The limitations of traditional publishing models for children's books (and products) are well-rehearsed. Studies such as Karen Sands-O'Connor's Children's Publishing and Black Britain, 1965–2015, for example, point to the way in which institutionalized racism has...


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