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How Online Communities Can Be Used to Transform the Lives of Young People


Change, is said to be the only true constant; nothing ever really stays static. From the time we are born, we have to open up to the concept of change, to deal with the knowledge that what we know today will probably not be the same tomorrow and even what we take as basic truths may turn out to be nothing more than myth (Gladwell, 2002).

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Given that change is inevitable, it is surprising how much the average person resists it; perhaps it is because constancy provides a comfort zone while change brings with it uncertainty. There are small and insignificant changes that go on around us every day; we may notice that first gray hair that feels us with dread because it is symbolic of so much more, the neighbor may paint his garage door from white to beige, or there may be a raise on the next paycheck (Gladwell, 2002).

On another level, there may be changes that are so gargantuan that they upset the foundations upon which certain ideologies existing within a given society. When change happens on a grand scale like this, it can be termed a paradigm shift (Gladwell, 2002).

Concern has on several occasions been raised about the lifestyle of young Americans today namely those in their teens and their early twenties. The cause for concern is what is seen as the desertion of traditionally embraced values as well as picking up self-destructive habits. Nowadays, young people are more prone to be violent, abuse drugs, gambles be disrespectful and delinquent. This moral decline has been blamed on several factors such as the influence of the media, especially public figures that are touted as being the ‘ideal’. Another scapegoat is the internet; maybe rightfully since with the presence of computers in almost every American home, the internet has brought closer than ever a world which in the past parents and guardians might have been able to keep out of the reach of young Americans, or at least to censor, but which now they venture into at will (Medscape, 2009).

Online social networking sites are creating a paradigm shift all of their own. They have transformed how young people relate with each other and made it easier for them to access information as well as services that might have been out of their reach before (Medscape, 2009).The internet has come with both pros and cons, and for concerned parents more harm than good (Medscape, 2009).

The state of American youth today

It seems the phenomenon in America today is the dropping age limit for when the youth start picking up habits that were once upon a time the preserve for those eighteen and twenty one years and over. It seems twelve is the new legal age limit, at least in the mind of these young people. American youth are now as prone to vices such as gambling, because they can access halls right from the privacy of their own bedrooms. But it seems that these problems are interlinked because once a teenager picks up a bad habit say gambling, he or she is more prone to become an abuser of alcohol and or other illegal substances, as well as falling into delinquency and crime. For the girls, the pressure to conform to the ideal standards of ‘beautiful’ is overwhelming. If one does not fit into this narrow category, mostly associated with a slender body and the latest fashions, it leads to despondency and low self esteem. The worst part is the censure subjected by peers (Medscape, 2009).

Why the need to create a paradigm shift in American youth today

It is about time that the problems facing young people were recognized as being as dire as they actually are, and a serious but workable approach adopted so as to rescue America’s youth. There is no need to bury one’s head under the sand and pretend that the young people of this generation are a crisis in the making. That is why there needs to be evolved a paradigm shift which will drastically shift the mindset of teenagers in America, to help them reassess what is important to them, and to connect with their emotional as well as psychological needs. That is why there needs to be created a platform on which young people, who are so far removed from the world of adults, can be reached and in a manner that will actually get through to them (Medscape, 2009).

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Why an online community would be suitable in creating a paradigm shift in American youth

It is important that one use tools already made available in the environment to solve problems that may occur in this environment. The internet is a very powerful and effective tool, mainly because almost all youth in America have access to it. Combine this with the school as an institution and it provides a firm basis for creating a paradigm shift.

The question has been raised again and again how the internet can be used to the greatest benefit of young people, not only as a way of imparting information that constitutes nothing more than facts but also as a plausible guide on how to create a value system (Medscape, 2009). What better way to do this than by designing online communities that uphold and promote the said values.

Taking the case of the American high school, there could be a special program introduced where the school, with the cooperation of the students, created a virtual community. All the principle actors would remain the same, namely the teachers, students and other members of staff. However, what would be taught in these virtual schools would have a different focus from the normal grind of academics.

While there is the ever-increasing pressure upon young Americans to excel, to get those straight as or that basketball scholarship, their emotional well-being is not so keenly looked after. The rates of divorce among American couples have skyrocketed in the past decades (Medscape, 2009). Yet they do not have reliable confidants whom they can turn to. Actively seeking help from an adult, especially within the school setting is considered sissy and frowned down upon by their peers.

Young people in America today need help, but either feel too intimidated or from some false perception of courage, are too proud to come right out and ask for it. Adults ‘don’t know a thing’ or are dismissed as not being able to understand. A virtual school community would create the middle ground where youth and their mentor adults could see eye to eye.

Having such a virtual community would provide a platform where young people could table the questions that they cannot bring themselves to ask adults outright without fear of being criticized or ridiculed. One reason young people with emotional/psychological suffering today or who are caught in the jaws of an addiction do not reach out to adults for help is because they are afraid of census. If, they could get this help, only by presenting themselves as an avatar, a virtual person who would not have to bear the embarrassment of admitting their need, then maybe they would be more ready to ask for this help.

An online community such as this would also be an arena where, using the simulation of games that teenage boys especially love so much real life situations could be recreated and better yet solutions presented on what to do in just such a situation. Young people would more easily identify with the virtual characters on their computers than with, say the dry lecture by a teacher on what to do if pressured by friends to smoke marijuana.

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An added advantage to having a virtual community as a way of teaching young people is that they could access material in privacy and at their own leisure without worrying about who was watching them, or say when a class bell will ring. If, in the case of counseling, then it would be easier to open up in private conversations without the difficulty of being face to face with the counselor.

Since the essence of creating a virtual community would be to get the attention of the youth, addressing difficult issues would be done in a way that actually makes it enjoyable and make learning about important things seem like fun. With games, challenges, quizzes, puzzles this could be achieved in such a way that a teenager would not feel like they are being forced to know these things.

A virtual community where positive virtues are actually extolled would encourage young people to re-evaluate their own value systems. Teenagers are at the age where they are greatly influenced by what they see, which in this instance is from their friends, media and the Internet. With a virtual community that could actually teach them about how to be conscientious and humane, they could be purged off some of the negative effects of a media that greatly extol narcissism and self-love, love for money, power and fame (Medscape, 2009).

How such an idea would be made truly successful is if these teenagers could actually carry the lessons learnt from the virtual realm and integrate this into actual day to day life by practicing. There could be a sister program initiated where every student would be required to take part in volunteer community activities, based on the aspect of their virtual community that to them had the greatest impact. The student would have to explain why this particular project turned out to be the most appealing. They would not have to be very daunting tasks. The student could opt to visit a foster home, or be a companion to a blind person or take donations to a shelter.

The drawbacks of this virtual community would be a resistance to it by the students, if they deemed it to be an extension of the school program. Such a community by the students might be considered ‘dorky’ or ‘lame’ and be cast aside. However, this could be countered by the fact that their avatars would shield the actual identity of the students and this would perhaps endow them with the courage to do things that normally are avoided for fear of being alienated from their peers.

The benefits of such a virtual community

The benefits of running such a program successfully would be myriad and have a far-reaching impact.

It would be a diversion that could help in keeping students away from more harmful and self-destructive activities such as online gambling or watching pornography. It would also be a way of providing accurate and correct information about harmful practices such as having unprotected sex or abusing banned substances. It would mean that these young people would mature into holistic adults with a more secure psychological as well as emotional well being. It would enhance these teenagers feeling of having community responsibility and integration, and to help them realize ways in which they could give back to their communities.

The parameters that would be used to determine the extent of this paradigm shift

The parameters with which this paradigm shift would be observed are diverse and are clearly outlined in ‘Doing democracy: the map model for organizing social movements (Moyer & McAllister & Finley & Soifer 2001). According to the authors of Doing democracy: the map model for organizing social movements, there are several indicators that show a paradigm shift has occurred. The first of these is that the new model has to experience a universal level of acceptance. It has to be vetted for by the relevant group of people. For example, in the case of using virtual communities as a way of teaching young people, educators, sociologists and psychologists have to come to the consensus that it is a viable practice. Once they have okayed it, then the general populace has to embrace the idea.

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Another event that has to occur is that there have to be laws and regulations made to govern and moderate the use of these virtual communities if they are to be termed as having created a paradigm shift. These communities have to be recognized as being legal entities under the current school codes and be incorporated in them.

There would be more emphasis on a virtual approach to educating students morals and good behavior while the more traditional methods of either face to face discussions or printed material would be sidelined.


Morality is a learned quantity. We may be born with an ingrained instinct to act humanely towards others of our own species, but this instinct has to be horned and nurtured. That is why children still need guidance in deciding what is wrong and what is right, between knowing what is good and bad. In the same way, young people, especially at the delicate when they are making the transition from childhood to adulthood, need to be told exactly what society expects of them. The internet, along with the social networking sites that come with it, is a phenomenon that is her to stay. Thus, instead of viewing it as a tool that is there simply to corrupt the minds of the young, it can be turned around and be used as a tool to educate American youth on a sense of values. If this is done in the right manner, it can result in a tremendous paradigm shift that will lead to there being a generation of more conscientious, people oriented youth.


Gladwell, M. (2002). The tipping point. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Medscape Today (2009). Youth Internet Use: Risks and Opportunities: Positive Aspects of Internet Use. Web.

Moyer, B., McAllister, J., Finley, M.L., & Soifer, S. (2001). Doing democracy:the map model for organizing social movements. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.

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