A group of British 11th and 12th graders kick a soccer ball around a dusty field with small, smiling children beaming at them with glee. They’re volunteering at an orphanage in Africa on a summer school trip with their school. Suddenly, they stop playing, call the children over, and gather around their smartphones. They smile wide for a selfie, hugging the children tighter into the frame.
A joyful moment captured for personal record? Or a contrived scene designed to have maximum impact on social media?
Unfortunately, for many teens it is likely to be the latter. Voluntourism – where students head overseas on school trips with the aim of contributing to local communities or charities – is a growing trend in education, but for many the point of these trips is lost in the endless pursuit of likes and shares online. Some schools have had to ban selfies on trips for this very reason. Could teachers be doing more to steer students in the right direction?
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to do good. Young people today see a world around them that is riddled with problems and ripe for change; we must not crush their eagerness to create a better future.
Temptations of social media
The problem comes when this adolescent philanthropic zest couples with the more narcissistic tendencies that teenagers’ social media profiles invite them to indulge. Under this temptation, charity work can become something to check off their list along with the Taj Mahal and hugging a baby tiger.
It’s up to teachers and parents to ensure that young people resist the temptation to take photographs as ego-boosting Facebook posts. Many young people today operate in a digital world where social validation risks defining their identities, with the number of likes notched up on a photo often correlated too closely to self-worth.
Alongside this anxious need for approval, the increasing pressure on building an online image can make teens forget the real focus of what they are doing; the plight of the communities they help risks becoming an aesthetic backdrop to their narratives of self-discovery.
What should we hope for young people on such trips? Ideally, meaningful experiences where their focus is fixed firmly on the culture they are in and the needs of the people around them, not turned back upon themselves.
We need to ensure that young people understand their own actions and that they realize why they are there. They must fully comprehend the problems of those they are helping. If we can do this, then we don’t need to ban selfies – students won’t want to take them.
Not all teenagers fall foul of the voluntourism ethics gap; many are fuelled by a natural curiosity, genuine concern for others and the determination to use such trips as a humble learning experience, rather than a self-promotion exercise. But too many do fall into the trap of the latter. Let’s help our students to keep the selfie out of the selfless good deed.
The writer is a teacher in West London, UK