10/14/2014 02:11 EDT | Updated 10/15/2014 02:59 EDT

#ChangeIsInYourHands: A Brief History Of Social Networking, Smartphones, And Social Change

Sami Sarkis via Getty Images

Armed with tools like Twitter, Facebook, and a stunning array of smartphones, a new generation of activists are pushing for social change in new and innovative ways. Technology has benefited social movements enormously by enabling individuals to potentially reach a huge audience to raise awareness about their cause and how others can get involved — boosting both awareness and participation. And no single group has capitalized on the benefits of technology towards social change like young people. Let’s take a brief look at the role technology has played in some powerful youth movements in the recent past.

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1998 — The pioneer of online activism

The first instance of the Internet being used to further a cause is widely credited with the launch of, an online petition and website established to lead media focus away from the personal indiscretions of then-President Bill Clinton and back to the issues that really matter: the political landscape of the country. The petition gained 500,000 signatures and started the evolution of web-based activism.

2007 — #activism

Although Twitter officially launched in 2006, hashtags didn’t actually exist on the social media platform until November 2007. (Yes, that’s right; there was once such a thing as Twitter without hashtags!) Once they did, however, there was no stopping them in bringing together people from around the globe who were interested in the same topics. Governments, corporations, not-for-profits, and individuals have used hashtags to their advantage ever since, and often for a good cause. For instance, Brazilian teen Rene Silva used Twitter as a way to bring about awareness to/change people’s perspective of his lower-class community in Rio De Janeiro. The online community newspaper he set up, Voz de Comunidade, has over 100,000 followers on Twitter and Silva himself has received praise and awards for his social media savvy.

2007 — launches

Gaining grassroots support for a movement used to involve a lot of knocking on doors and stopping strangers on the street. The Internet has changed that, and especially has made online petitions a real way of enacting powerful change. Here’s an example: In 2012, 14-year-old Julia Bluhm began a campaign to petition teen magazine Seventeen to stop using photoshopped images in all of its fashion spreads. It worked! Bluhm’s petition on garnered 84,000 signatures and earned an incredible amount of awareness for the cause, from both the media and Seventeen’s Editor-in-Chief, who promised to feature only images of healthy, real girls from that point forward, and to truly listen to the voices of the young women who read the magazine.

2010 — Phones and Facebook pages Go Pink

Canadian telecom provider TELUS started a social media movement in 2010 with their Go Pink campaign. The original intention of the campaign was to raise awareness of breast cancer and donate funds for local hospitals across Canada to buy new digital mammography equipment for better and earlier breast cancer detection. The original goal was to get 50,000 people involved in the campaign, showing their support by changing their Facebook profile pictures pink, but that number was eclipsed within the first 48 hours. Within a month, the Go Pink campaign had generated 550,000 likes and over 817,000 individuals had changed their profile pics. In response to this mass participation, TELUS donated over $2.5-million to local hospitals, earning the TELUS Go Pink campaign a nomination as one of the top three social media campaigns in the world. And you thought Facebook was just for cat photos.

2014 — The rise of the viral fundraising campaign

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge will come to define the year 2014, creating a viral sensation that almost everyone with access to a cell phone or a webcam got involved in. From celebrities, to politicians, to athletes, to your mom, the incredible viral success of this campaign — created to raise awareness and boost donations for this debilitating disease — warmed millions of hearts, even if the challenge itself is ice cold.

Outside of the celebrities dunking themselves in ice water, the most impactful video of the movement may have come from 26 year-old Anthony Carbajal, who posted an inspiring and heartbreaking ice bucket video that culminated in him sharing his family’s struggle with the disease. Videos like this clearly made a difference. The Challenge dominated Facebook feeds around the world in the summer of 2014 and raised millions for ALS research, according to the New York Times, proving once again that without spending a cent on advertising, social media word-of-mouth can be an invaluable tool in spreading a message and encouraging worldwide participation in a worthy cause.

2014 – We365 takes Canada by storm

We Day, an annual event started by Free the Children to empower youth to take the lead on issues that are important to them, got its start in 2007 and has been reaching tens of thousands of Canadian youth since. With several large events happening across the country and as far away as the United States and Britain, this year’s event marked another strong entry in what is already a proud legacy of social change. What’s more, it’s even easier to get involved with the issues, events, and people who are making a difference in our world by downloading the We365 app, an innovative mobile app created by Free The Children and TELUS that allows young people to use their phones for good. The app enables them to track and verify their volunteer hours, learn about causes they’re interested in, take daily challenges and rally their friends around topics they are passionate about. The free app is available for iPhone and Android devices. On top of the app, you can also get involved by posting and following #changeisinyourhands on Twitter and Instagram, so you’re never more than a hashtag away from the latest inspirational developments.

Of course, this is all just the beginning — online and smartphone activism and charity is still a fairly new concept and the sky’s the limit when it comes to its potential to reach audiences globally. Every month, a new app or service is invented or adopted by bright young people who sincerely believe in a better tomorrow. The power of change is now literally in their hands to create, connect, innovate, inspire, and (most importantly) lead the charge in changing our world for the better.