Shaping the Virtual Landscape
A World of Digital Possibilities
by Elizabeth Dabney Hochman
The next generation is growing up online. We have seen countless studies about the amount of time kids spend engaging with digital media and the effects it has on their development. Those of us who care about nurturing thoughtfulness, integrity, and compassion might meet these facts with dismay or denial, or wish to go back to the way things once were. But as we all know, that is impossible.
There is no undoing the fact that teenagers today – and adults of course, too – spend a significant portion of their lives creating, consuming, and exchanging digital media. Much of the material they’re exposed to is superficial or even harmful, but it doesn’t have to be. The virtual landscape has no inherent shape; it will become what the global community makes of it. Interfaith and spiritual leaders can harness the power of new technology to create opportunities and content that foster deep thinking, open dialogue, and meaningful connection. From online publishing that enables us to reach all corners of the globe to exciting new technology that allows for face-to-face conversations across thousands of miles, the possibilities for authentic engagement online are endless.
This undertaking may seem daunting, but it is worth the effort. In fact, kids are hungry for these opportunities. I know this because I’ve spent the past decade working with a global community of 11-to-17-year-olds to create exactly such a platform – KidSpirit, the only spiritual magazine and community by and for youth to explore life’s big questions together. Originally a print publication conceived and authored by a small group of Brooklyn teenagers more than a decade ago, the magazine moved online after four issues, and a burgeoning global community soon followed. The transition opened up a world of possibilities for cross-cultural exchange. Today, the website features inspiring articles, poems, artwork, and videos by hundreds of kids from 26 countries, many of whom have met with each other both in person and online. Their work on spiritual, ethical, and philosophical topics annually reaches over 50,000 readers from 187 countries through KidSpiritOnline.com, and even more through syndication on the Huffington Post and Spirituality & Practice.
From the very beginning, KidSpirit was created to give kids a path to explore life’s big questions in community – a community of young writers, artists, thinkers, and readers who would otherwise be starved for substantive content. We wanted kids of all backgrounds and traditions to be exposed to each other’s perspectives, beliefs, passions, and aspirations.
Over the years, media has evolved in ways that continue to surprise us, but we have seen pushing the envelope and staying ahead of the trends as an essential part of our mission to reach and engage youth everywhere. Giving teenagers opportunities for growth requires the flexibility and creativity to keep up with their reality and meet them where they are. As the internet has revolutionized how we consume information and communicate with each other across distance and time zones, we have found ways to embrace change while staying true to the core of our original vision. KidSpirit’s development speaks to the benefits of allowing ideals to be malleable in the service of kids, whose world is shifting rapidly almost every day.
This philosophy has guided us for a decade, since we first introduced KidSpirit Online. In transitioning to a web magazine, we knew how easily we could be swept up in an environment that often favors quantity, speed, and sensationalism over quality and depth. We spent months envisioning a website that would stay true to the spirit of the original publication, as well as the editorial process that bore it. First, and most importantly, we decided that, like the print magazine, the site would always be ad free. We also decided against widgets, popup windows, copious links to other pages within articles, and other distracting features. Lastly, we and our young editors poured our hearts into making the magazine as beautiful online as it was in print, full of artwork by kids and other images that enhance the authors’ work and do full credit to the immense effort they put into crafting their pieces.
In addition, we did not make changes to our editorial process, which we often liken to the “slow food” movement. KidSpirit is a peer-edited publication, and editors collaborate with writers to refine every article before it is published. This process can take up to several months, during which authors think through and fine tune how they express their ideas in light of their peers’ feedback, along with guidance from our adult staff. Posting content to the web is incredibly fast and easy – but that doesn’t mean content creation has to be. By refusing to speed up or water down our writing and editing process, we give kids time to develop as writers, and as people.
In recent years, we’ve capitalized on digital media in ways we never could have predicted when we began in 2008. Through a new program called KidSpirit Shorts, teens can share their ideas through short videos, which are planned, scripted, shot, and edited with guidance from peers and an on-staff filmmaker. This project offers new avenues for creative expression, while widening the conversation to include kids who may not be comfortable writing longer articles.
New technology has not only opened up a new range of content, but new opportunities for kids to authentically connect around the world. With video conferencing, editors and contributors have a chance to meet each other face-to-face despite the once insurmountable barrier of physical distance. We are now able to pair kids from different parts of the U.S. and abroad to engage in deep conversations and work together to create articles detailing their experiences.
One such project bridged the often untraversable boundary between countries in conflict, bringing together two teens from India and Pakistan to get to know each other, discuss religious and historical differences, and really consider how to rise above those differences. “In the end,” these young women decided, “we proved to ourselves that we are all born under the same sky. We spoke, we laughed, we endeavored to get to know each other as people, and in that we realized that a physical border cannot separate human hearts. If it’s easy for us, it’s easy for you too. For all of us.”
Similarly, online video workshops bring together small groups to edit articles together. In these sessions, kids from California to Kentucky, Paraguay to Pakistan gather to work on articles and poems by writers from all over the world. They discuss each writer’s thoughts and perspective, and in doing so build meaningful connections through substantive conversations. In the coming months, we plan to expand these workshops to include dialogue sessions based on KidSpirit content.
These experiences do not replace interpersonal communication (groups still meet in person in their hometowns), but rather supplement it by enabling kids to engage with peers they would otherwise never meet. Denver, New York City, Mumbai, Beijing, Maine – from rural to urban, homogenous to diverse, every community is to some extent a bubble, where certain norms and ideas are shared by most of the people we interact with every day. Video conferencing technology allows kids to experience the world outside that bubble and learn about a totally new perspective directly from their peers.
Of course, there are hurdles; time zones make scheduling difficult, technological problems crop up unexpectedly, language barriers can impede conversation, and cultural differences might lead to misunderstandings. With some work, each of these can be overcome, or at least mitigated. We have found that providing kids with a clear structure and starting off with a few “ground rules,” along with moderation by adults, creates the conditions for a constructive conversation even when we encounter a few bumps in the road.
Digital media can be an amazing aid to deep engagement across boundaries, opening up a new world of communication that otherwise would be impossible. It is a valuable tool to add to the interfaith landscape, especially for those who work with teenagers. The next generation is already growing up online; it is up to us to create opportunities for meaningful engagement.
Header Photo: Amy Liu, “The Word,” KidSpirit