More teens and tweens are challenging actions that harm our planet. But as the younger generation turns to activism, backlash can take its toll. Here's how to support them through it.

By Sheila Mary Koch
December 19, 2019
illustration of young girl with megaphone and a wall of parents behind her linking elbows
Credit: Illustration by Sonia Pulido

Robbie Bond was only 9 when he founded the non-profit Kids Speak for Parks. It was in response to a 2017 executive order threatening 27 national parks, including the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument near his home in Hawaii. And he got press very quickly after he tried to fight the downsizing of a national monument in Utah.

While the response to his goals have been mostly positive, Robbie's been accused of being an actor paid to advocate for the cause, reports his mother Michelle. "But what's shocked me most are these keyboard warriors making fun of his cleft palate. Not kids, adults," says Michelle.

Unfortunately, opposers can also be dangerous. When someone threatened Robbie's life on social media, his parents immediately blocked the man. But when the guy then posted detailed threats on a brand affiliate's Instagram, they turned, terrified, to the local sheriff and their mentor, a former high-ranking national park official. Both sent them directly to the FBI.

Robbie Bond
Robbie Bond speaking in front of 7,000 people in Utah to defend National Park.
| Credit: Courtesy of Robbie Bond

Opposition like this is something adult public advocates of all kinds have to deal with. But for a growing number of young activists taking a stand, it can be even more frightening for emotionally developing children, as well as for their parents who try to protect them. Luckily, there are effective ways to keep young activists as far away from harm as possible.

Protecting Young Activists from Backlash

"We see kids as young as 7 and 8 fired up to change the world," says Rachel Sarnoff, a sustainability strategist who facilitates the guardian track at Ocean Heroes Bootcamp, an annual youth summit to reduce plastic pollution. They often begin doing projects in their local community and want to reach more people, she explains.

Social media has proven highly effective in amplifying their message. "Without social media, Stella's project would've been a poster board," says Andrea, mom of Stella Bowles who, after testing the LaHave River near her home in Nova Scotia for a science fair project, blew the whistle on government inaction that allowed over 600 houses to illegally flush their toilets directly into it.

But social media is also an easy outlet for opposers to spread negativity and attack these young advocates. That's why parents are stepping in and taking control of their children's accounts.

Alison Yap set-up and regularly monitors her daughter's social media accounts. Her eighth grade PADI scuba diver Chloe Mei Espinosa magnified her sixth grade "Passion Project" through her site Skip the Plastic Straw and Instagram. That led her to convince an outdoor science institute, 128 schools, and two hospitals in Southern California to remove plastic straws in all of their cafeterias. Yap and her daughter also make sure to keep campaign and personal accounts separate and only post after events are over.

Chloe Mei Espinosa
Chloe Mei Espinosa campaigns for no plastic straws.
| Credit: Orange County Register

Robbie and his parents are also conscious of when they post. They learned first-hand the risk of sharing during an event when they used the Facebook live feature at a San Francisco beach cleanup. "We thought we'd covered all our bases, but someone cross referenced a trash can and found us among some 4,000 people," says Robbie's father, Robin. "Fortunately, she was a fan, but we realized the danger."

Others avoid engaging with negative posts completely. Stella's mom Andrea believes her daughter's positive and noncritical approach has helped mitigate backlash. They've let the community respond to negative posts, most directed toward the Canadian government. "I think most people see her as a kid with hope who just wants her river clean," says Andrea.

Jamie Margolin, who has been in the public eye advocating for climate change solutions since she started the non-profit Zero Hour when she was 16, takes a similar approach. One weekend, more than 100 Neo-Nazis trolled her site after discovering she's Jewish. She quickly blocked them. "She doesn't engage with those groups or nasty comments on social media," says her father, Mark. "Those people aren't interested in having a serious conversation so she's not going to waste time trying to convince someone with an agenda against her."

Jamie Margolin
Jamie Margolin at a 2018 Climate March organized by Zero Hour.
| Credit: Courtesy of Jamie Margolin

Parents should also have conversations about what to expect. Let them know they should anticipate encountering some highly irrational people on social media, says Sarnoff. She also encourages parents to help their kids understand that "comments apparently directed at them aren't about them."

Having people to turn to in dire straits is essential. The parents interviewed attest to the value of the less dramatic day-to-day support they and their young activists receive through mentorship, as well as connecting with peers doing similar work.

"Socially as a kid, it's been tough," admits Andrea who shares that when Stella returned from an amazing experience as a youth ambassador in Ecuador, no one at school or on her hockey team asked about it. She's in touch remotely with science-minded friends she's made while traveling.

Stella Bowles
Stella Bowles next to the LaHave River.
| Credit: Béatrice Schuler Mojon

"Ocean Heroes Bootcamp has been instrumental in Chloe Mei's campaign," reports Alison who met a community of parents raising kids engaged in environmental activism. "All these kids with the same passion come together after working solo in their own countries and have fun working together."

Positive Side of Advocating for Change

These young activists agree that the pros outweigh the cons when it comes to being in the public eye—mostly because it's really helped them spread their message.

"On the positive side, people do care about what you think," says Jamie who testified before congress in September and was recently asked for a political campaign endorsement. "It's pretty incredible that I say something, and it carries weight."

Now that her government is cleaning up the river, Stella is encouraging young people worldwide to act as guardians of their local waterways through live speaking engagements, her book, and recent TED Talk.

Anticipating the upcoming release of the Disney Marvel Heroes Series that features him in an episode, Robbie Bond says, "I think it's going to energize other kids seeing they can do whatever they want as long as they're committed."