YOUNG people are often criticised for being more interested in their phones than what’s going on around them. However, last weekend’s climate protests prove that's just not true. With around 100,000 protestors gathering in Glasgow, young people led the way in demanding greater climate action from the world leaders attending COP26.

But one thing many older folk don't understand is that younger people protest differently. We were brought up online – we are the social media generations.

In 2019, technology writer Evgeny Morozov described online activism (or “slacktivism”) as the ideal activism “for a lazy generation”. It’s true that online activism is relatively quick and easy. For instance, you may be a slacktivist without even knowing it. If you’ve ever signed an e-petition, retweeted a political post, or shared an infograph on Facebook or Instagram, then you’ve met the criteria for online activism.

Morozov felt that even if online activism could generate large-scale interest, it risked making people too comfortable with campaigning from home and giving up tried-and-tested protest methods, such as sit-ins and marches.

But after a pandemic year, when staying at home was not optional, and large gatherings presented a serious health risk, we should cut so-called slacktivists some slack.

Greta Thunberg, 18, the renowned climate activist and founder of the Fridays for Future campaign, has embraced digital protests. Fridays for Future began with Thunberg, then aged 15, striking from school outside the Swedish parliament, for more robust government climate action. Now, Fridays for Future has become a worldwide phenomenon.

In March 2021, Thunberg asked her seven million followers to move their strikes online. Since then, her campaign has amassed a large digital following. On the 24th of April 2020, Fridays for Future’s global strike day, approximately 40,000 people were said to have shared one of the movement’s hashtags. Fridays for Future claimed that this made it “the largest online demonstration” ever.

While these numbers are impressive, online campaigns do lack visual impact. Joel Lev-Tov, a member of the Fridays for Future digital media team, said in an interview: “It’s a lot more impressive to have 500 people marching down the street…than 500 people tweeting at you.”

He also noted that when a protest lacks visual impact, it's harder to attract media attention, which is key in pushing politicians to act.

Another problem with online activism is losing out on the sense of camaraderie that exists at marches.

Iona Ramsay, 23, has regularly attended protests since her mum took her to her first independence rally aged five. Ramsay said that during lockdown she missed protesting alongside other people. She said that protesting online can feel isolating, especially when so much other content is being shared at the same time.

So online activism isn’t perfect. However, that doesn’t mean it should be discounted as mere slacktivism.

Online activism is essential for knowledge-sharing. According to Ramsay: “People are going to be scrolling through social media anyway, so [if] more people see your posts…It might motivate them to go out and protest in person.”

In 2019, Ofcom reported that 12 to 15-year-olds were increasingly using social media to support political causes by sharing or commenting on posts. They called this “the Greta effect”. Speaking to Ofcom, I learned that similar results were found amongst 12 to-15-year-olds in 2020.

Likewise, The Hansard Society’s audit revealed that younger generations are more likely to participate politically online rather than offline. Only going out to vote ranked higher than any of the online political actions included in the survey.

Researchers remain divided over whether this decline in traditional protest methods is threatening political participation. Neta Kligler-Vilenchik and Kjerstin Thorson, are two academics studying the impact of online activism at the University of Southern California. They say that instead of fearing this decline, we should accept that activism is changing.

Online activism’s greatest success has been creating global networks of young climate activists. This is especially important when we consider that people from developing countries are the most at risk of climate change, with many already living with its serious effects.

Just this week, I watched a video of Simon Kofe, Tuvalu’s foreign minister, after it was shared by numerous climate activists online. The video sees Kofe presenting his speech to the COP26 summit dressed in a suit and tie, whilst up to his knees in seawater.

In the speech, Kofe explains that Tuvalu, a low-lying Pacific Island nation, is already seeing the impact of rising sea levels. According to the youth-led movement Saving Tuvalu, it is set to be the first nation “to disappear” underwater, with some estimating this could happen in the next 50 years.

Young online activists from around the world have played a crucial role in sharing stories like these widely, to ensure that those most affected by climate change do not go unheard.

Speaking to the International Institute for Environment and Development, Vanessa Nakate, 24, a Ugandan climate justice activist, said that world leaders from wealthy countries must start following this example, and give climate activists from developing countries a seat at climate talks.

As COP26 draws to a close, this young, global generation of protestors are on the frontline when it comes to demanding greater climate action. Their work offline and online shows they are far from a “lazy generation” of slacktivists.

Sarah Hutchison is a journalist and blogger based in Edinburgh, with an interest in the climate crisis and social justice