Muhammad Najem’s Twitter and Instagram feeds are filled with selfies, but the self-portraits he shares are far from what many might expect of a teenager. Najem’s face takes up just a small portion of the screen — the rest shows exploding bombs, falling buildings, and the cries of pain, anger and frustration that have been the norm in Syria since its civil war began in 2011.
Since he was 14 years old, Najem has made it his mission to show the world the effects the war has had on his town in Eastern Ghouta and the rest of Syria. With the help of his older brother, he made a YouTube and Twitter account and started to share footage with the world. He has shared the story of how his father was killed in a bombing, video of the walls of his home falling apart around him and the remnants of what he says used to be his school.
Najem told CBS News that his goal is to use social media to be a voice for the children who have died during the conflict. The United Nations estimates that 9,000 children have been killed or injured in the conflict.
“I share my voice to show people the serious situation in Syria,” said Najem, who is now 17. “This is my country, so it’s my responsibility. It’s my job to show the world the difficult situation in Syria. We need to find a solution to this problem.”
Just 20 years ago, the world would likely not have seen Najem’s videos or followed his story of being displaced and seeking refuge in Turkey in real time; students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School may not have been able to register hundreds of thousands of people to vote, or organize a national movement in support of gun reform. Greta Thunberg may not have become a global icon for the fight against climate change, and the incident that a 17-year-old girl captured on her phone that resulted in George Floyd’s death may not have gained national attention, if any at all.
But with platforms like Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok, Generation Z — defined by Pew Research as those born after 1996 — has been able to use the digital world they were born into to revolutionize activism.
That includes 13-year-old Amariyanna Copeny, also known as “Little Miss Flint.” Copeny has been fighting to fix the water crisis in her hometown of Flint, Michigan, since she was 8 years old. Flint became the site of one of the worst man-made environmental disasters in history in 2014 when improperly treated water was provided to residents and complaints of toxic lead levels went ignored.
In 2016, Copeny wrote a letter to then-President Barack Obama and helped persuade him to visit Flint and see how pervasive the crisis was firsthand. Years later, she said she’s harnessed the national attention she received to raise more than $500,000, and said she has supplied more than 1 million water bottles to her hometown. She is now raising money to distribute Hydroviv water filters for a long-lasting, more sustainable fix.
“If I don’t speak then who will?” Copeny told CBS News. “I just want everybody to have clean water. Everyone thought that it was only Flint that had a bad water crisis. No, America has a water crisis.”
Ziad Ahmed, a 21-year-old Yale student and the CEO/Founder of JUV Consulting, has been working to change the world since he was 14. As a freshman in high school, he created the non-profit organization Redefy, described as “a hub for youth activism.” Students involved in the organization create local chapters nationwide focused on disseminating information about social justice issues and policies by way of classroom activities, community programs and social media campaigns. The organization’s website also serves as a teen-run news outlet for students to write about these topics.
But Ahmed isn’t just using his businesses to ignite conversations about discrimination, mental health and federal policies — he’s using his personal accounts, too.
Ahmed has 16,000 followers on TikTok, and has used that platform to discuss the importance of female leadership, the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and why Black Lives Matter is a movement of equality. His Twitter feed is dedicated to supporting people of color and sharing insight on social justice issues, all of which are prominent topics on the app.
“Gen Z is a generation of we. Millennials fought a lot of battles for us. They said, ‘I can be whoever I want to be,’ and we’re saying, ‘hell yeah. I can be whoever I want to be, but isn’t it more beautiful when we’re whoever we want to be together?”
“At the click of a button, we can start a movement. …The weight of the world is heavy. And there’s a lot going on, and there’s a lot of change that we need to make and a lot more justice that we need to achieve,” Ahmed added. “I would say that my peers are passionate, and I would say my peers are frustrated, but also I think my peers are optimistic. … We’re looking at a world where there is so much injustice and brutality and unfairness and bias, and we’re saying, damn it, we can’t just let this keep going.”
In a 2019 report, Irregular Labs found that nearly three-quarters of the generation believes that being politically and socially engaged is very important to their identity, and for many, “being politically and socially engaged is simply being a good citizen.”
“Our generation is a generation of activists,” 18-year-old Caleb Lee told CBS News. “We really care about the future of this country, we care about equality.”
Lee, who just graduated from high school, said in the three years he took U.S. history, he never “learned about the Black side of history other than slavery and the civil rights movement.” He said he only learned about it when he elected to take a contemporary Black history class his senior year.
“I really just learned just how ingrained racism is in our society, in our country,” Lee said. “Unfortunately, I feel like a lot of Americans don’t have the same opportunities as I did to learn about Black history. But what they do have are their smartphones and social media.”
Lee has been filming Black Lives Matter protests in New York City for several weeks. Racial injustices and oppression are difficult for many people to understand, especially when they don’t see or experience it firsthand, he said, adding that he wanted to show people the raw emotion that protesters bring to demonstrations.
“When I heard about the systemic killings of African Americans in my country, I felt like I had to do something about it,” Lee said. “It’s a very complex issue. …If you don’t experience racism day to day, I think it’s really hard to know that it exists.”
How Gen Z is revolutionizing activism
All of the Gen Zers that CBS News spoke with said they don’t have the luxury of being silent.
The U.N. expects that tens of millions of people will be displaced because of climate change just within the next decade. Giffords Law Center found that gun violence in the U.S. increased 16% between 2014 and 2017. National reports show that 20% of the world — or roughly 1.6 billion people — lack adequate housing.
“We cannot afford to not care or not to see because this is the world that we’re inheriting,” Ahmed said. “Whether or not there is clean air or clean water in 50 years, it is a personal and a political issue, and it should be treated as such. It’s not a choice to care. I think it’s just our reality. We’ve been forced to care because the systems and people before us let us down and did not invest in the systems that will empower us, that will save us.”
The power of Generation Z has not gone unnoticed by other generations.
Martin Luther King III, who is 62, told CBS News that the group has managed to take decades of activism that happened before them — such as the civil rights work of his dad, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — and make people engage with it in new and unique ways.
“I felt like I was beating my head against the wall, trying to get people to engage, and now you don’t have to do that because people want to, they have the desire, they have the propensity” King told CBS News. “This is a manifestation of what we’ve been working for. …It’s exciting to realize that these changes that some of us have been fighting for forever, are going to happen.”
Today’s youth seem to have a natural knack for making a difference, King said, and are making bigger changes from younger ages. He said that today’s climate and the available technologies have created the perfect opportunity for the generation to put an end to injustice.
“The way my wife characterized it is, we have to work for change, we have to pray for change, we have to be the change,” King said, “and if love is not yet won, then the battle is not yet over.”