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Helping Young People Navigate Cancel Culture


Cancel culture can be used for good, as a way to demand social change. It’s helped combat wrongdoing like racism, sexism, and LGBTQIA+ bias. But it can also be used to harm, as a way to bully. And that’s a real risk to young people’s well-being.

Young people are still forming their beliefs and identities. They need the chance to learn from their mistakes. But cancellation only makes things harder. Young people are very sensitive to peer rejection and public shaming. So, being canceled may lead to anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

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    Pressures of cancel culture

    Cancel culture is common on social media. The main way to cancel someone is through blocking, unfollowing, or verbally targeting them on social media platforms.

    But cancel culture also happens in real life, at school, or in activities outside of school. Canceled young people are often left out, bullied, ignored, and isolated.

    They may feel these pressures:

    Pressure to conform or be inauthentic. Instead of discussing differences, cancel culture pressures youth to conform. It inhibits their individuality. And they may fear they’ll be punished for saying what they think or feel. That harms their development.

    Pressure to attack. It makes them think it’s OK or cool to attack those they disagree with or dislike.

    Pressure to use “all or nothing” thinking. There’s no room for change and growth over time, no accepting responsibility.

    Cancellation impacts mental health

    It can be a powerful learning experience for young people to be called out by their peers for offensive words or actions. And it’s important for young people to learn to speak up about unacceptable behaviors.

    But cancellation is too often a harsh punishment, not a teaching moment. Brain imaging studies show that social rejection literally hurts. It lights up the same parts of the adolescent brain as physical pain.

    Being socially shunned by your peers feels devastating. It can take a long time for young people to trust themselves and others again. And to feel a sense of belonging. The pain and shame of being canceled can be traumatic.

    You can help young people navigate cancel culture

    The best thing you can do is make space for honest conversations. Encourage open discussion about cancellation and how it affects people on all sides.

    • Help young people understand the consequences of cancel culture
    • Validate their emotions about cancel culture, whether it involves peers or celebrities
    • Teach them about good digital citizenship on social media
    • Try to get at what’s underneath the cancelling behavior if it’s happening between young people. How could they better share their beliefs and values?
    • Don’t judge a canceled young person based on their actions. It’s an opportunity to discuss, learn, and grow
    • Encourage gentler “calling out” and “calling in” instead of “all or nothing” cancellation so young people have a chance to apologize and learn to do better
    • Use this as an opportunity to practice conflict resolution It’s important to understand what others feel and think even if they don’t agree

    Strong, trusting relationships with peers and youth workers help young people know they’re not alone in their experiences. Topics like cancel culture and mental health can be discussed in a compassionate way with caring people.

    When you give young people guidance on how to deal with things like canceling, peer pressure, and cyberbullying, you empower them to be better advocates for themselves and others.

    You can help young people navigate cancel culture. And practice good digital citizenship in safe, healthy ways. YIPA’s training on Ethical Considerations for Social Media Use with Youth is a great place to start.

    About the author

    Jade Schleif is the training coordinator of the Youth Intervention Programs Association (YIPA), a non-profit association of youth-serving organizations. We're your source for exceptional, affordable, personal and professional online learning via The Professional Youth Worker.  Join us! Questions or feedback? Email [email protected].

    To ask Jade a question or share your feedback about this blog, email [email protected].

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