As classes at Riverhead High School resumed after the holiday break, Stephanie Piraino’s ninth-grade English classes were presented with a challenge: Choose an important cause and devise a strategy to spread awareness about it in a way that uses social media for good.
The students had just finished reading the book “Tuesdays With Morrie,” in which a former student follows the final days of Morrie Schwartz, as he battles amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a neurodegenerative disease that affects the brain and spinal cord. The class drew inspiration from both the book and the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, a call to action spread across social media in 2014 that had people dumping ice-cold water over their heads to call attention to the disease and raise research funds.
“I try to make every lesson, every unit have a purpose for the kids,” Ms. Piraino said. “We are getting bombarded with all the negativity of social media and I always try to get the kids to see that they have a voice.”
The idea was to show students they have the power to bring positivity to their community, Ms. Piraino explained.
Students were advised to choose causes they’re passionate about. One group chose to spread the word about depression, calling their project Hashtag Smile.
“A lot of teens suffer from depression and we wanted to find a topic that we could relate to people that are on social media,” said student Lily Kutner. Social media is what they know, so the class decided to use it to their advantage, she said.
The project came about around the same time Riverhead elementary students were mounting a campaign encouraging the community to perform acts of kindness. The Great Kindness Challenge, which ended Friday, asked participants to post photos of their acts on social media using the hashtag #RiverheadKindness.
Hashtag Smile used different outlets — Instagram, YouTube and Facebook — with a challenge of its own: “Take a video of you giving someone a hug, tag 5 people, using the hashtag #AHugADayKeepsTheFrownAway.”
The students posted videos and facts about depression once or twice each day and have drawn nearly 240 followers to their account in less than a month, adding at least one new follower every day.
“It is the easiest way to spread news,” Lily said about using social media for good. “Everybody’s always on it, even during school.”
“We were kind of brought up from the internet,” added Kayla Langhorne, a member of Hashtag Smile. “The internet is our generation.”
Their goal was to let people know they’re not alone, said student Eric Lehman.
One problem with social media, the class found, is that people are often not mindful of the context behind the words they post.
“Many people are unaware about the true meaning of mental disorders and they also use them as negative adjectives to describe people or situations that they’re going through personally,” said Madison Mackie, whose group focused on disorders that include anxiety. “But people say, ‘Oh, you’re insane’ or ‘I’m so depressed about this.’”
The freshmen tackled a range of causes, including the importance of exercise, literacy, autism and domestic abuse. They drew from their own experiences or thought of loved ones when they decided on issues to research.
“I know that people in my family have been abused and like not just other people and stuff going on like that,” said Sabrina Maccaron, whose group created a video depicting different stages of an abusive relationship. “It affects a lot of people and not everybody knows about it and it just needs to come out more than it is.”
Sofia Salgado’s group took on children’s literacy after she shared the story of her former soccer coach, who devoted his life to giving his family a decent life and education. The coach, who grew up in Africa, found himself forced to convert from Islam to Christianity in order to attend a Catholic private school and receive a quality education, she said.
“To me it sounds crazy that people can’t explore a new world that was created for them because of illiteracy,” said Sydney Zahara, adding that her group discovered that more than 7 million adults can’t read.
Ms. Piraino said she was proud of what her students accomplished in this first-time assignment and was impressed by how they handled serious issues. Students had a chance to go outside their comfort zones and advocate for someone else, she said.
“Even if you help one person, you make one person feel different because of what you did, that’s a really big deal,” she said.
Many students said they’d try to keep some of their social media accounts updated and keep the causes from going unnoticed. Some groups found that their efforts even reached people in other countries.
“I don’t know that any of them necessarily care about a grade anymore,” Ms. Piraino said. “I think that they care about what they have done for their cause.”
Photo caption: With Hashtag Smile, Riverhead ninth-graders (from left) Lily Kutner, Kayla Langhorne, Kacie Dilworth, Eric Lehman and Jared Nicholson aim to spread awareness about depression using social media. (Credit: Kelly Zegers)