Raise Awareness. Yeah Yeah Yeah… So What?

I don’t have any love lost for FaceBook campaigns that ask you to change your status in support of This N’ That or Blah Blah Blah, so when people started changing their profile pictures to cartoon figures and posting statuses that said they were doing so in the name of raising awareness about child abuse, I just rolled my eyes, ignoring it. After all, that strategy worked when I got message after “secret” message asking me to post where I keep my purse or what colour bra I’m wearing, so I figured I’d just ride this one out too. But this one has a different tone than the others. People have been remarkably insistent, posting statuses that say “you should do this too” and even going so far as to directly post on my wall that I should change my picture. I’m amazed at how many people have jumped on board, as well as how many people seem to think a campaign like this really makes any kind of difference at all.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I appreciate that this is a well-meaning campaign, that most people are changing their profile picture because it is a small, fun thing to do. If it helps raise awareness about child abuse, well… what can it hurt? How can it be worse than doing nothing? The rhetoric of support seems to go something like this: it is easy to do. It is fun. It is catching on. If wondering why everyone is changing their picture encourages even one person to look up information about child abuse, well… then the campaign has worked! If you are arguing about it, then it works! We’re talking about it! Raising awareness is better than not raising awareness, right?

Except… No.


I know I think about child abuse more than a lot of people. Not only am I a survivor, but I’ve spent years as an anti-violence advocate. So perhaps I’m not the best gage of how a campaign like this might impact people who don’t think about this stuff every day. But here’s what I worry about:

1.) For the average (not every, just average) person. this is a feel-good fix that does little to make any actual impact. My friend Jen phrased it best when she said she suspects “it’s most likely that folks are reminded that children are abused and feel sad about it for a moment and change their pic and feel better about themselves. And ultimately, that’s all that’s happening: people feel a little less bad.”

2.) We are a culture increasingly focused on internet activism. We take to the internet, not the streets. We believe that signing an online petition or posting a status update equals or stands in for actual political engagement, stands in for the kind of grassroots, on the street, in the community work that we need to do to foster real systemic change. We are becoming “slacktivists.” Now, I know that many of the people who have changed their profile pics also work for change in more tangible ways, but I also know that many don’t.

3.) “Raising awareness” is a pretty soft goal when it isn’t tied to tangible outcome. To what end are we raising awareness? What are we asking people to DO with this information? An awareness campaign that reminds people that 1 in 8 women develops breast cancer is asking women to monitor their health. An awareness campaign that tells you a local health center is in danger of losing funding is asking you for money. An awareness campaign than tells you food is full of pesticides is trying to get you to not eat food coated in pesticides. But a campaign like this one that reminds you– vaguely, with no data or links to orgs– that child abuse simply exists is asking you for nothing.

4.) A supporter of the campaign sent me a link to “proof” that the campaign is working – a news clip that used the FB campaign as a starting point to lay out some statistics and recent examples of child abuse. But even that tells me little. Knowing that a man recently beat his two children to death doesn’t tell me anything about the factors that fostered his violence. And without that information, I don’t really know what kinds of interventions I can make to facilitate or support change. For example, over the summer, when 17-month old Roy Jones was punched to death by a stepfather who thought he needed to learn how to “act like a man” I was pretty clear on what kind of social education I needed to support – the persistent thinking that gender needs to be policed. When a child is shaken to death by a frustrated teenage mom, I know what kind of education and action I need to invest in: support for single parents, new parents, and education campaigns that remind people that shaking babies can kill them. We need to “raise awareness” about the contexts for violence, particularly the systemic factors that facilitate it, in order to know how we can create change.

5.) Finally, I find the use of cartoon characters baffling. I get that it is a fun trip down memory lane, something we associate with childhood, but so many of these cartoons are gendered in ways that are sexualized and/or violent. Further, abusers are unable to acknowledge the full humanity of their victims, so the call to “not see a human face until December 7th” seems particularly problematic in this context.

6.) I’ve watched this play out for a few days now, and most of the discussion about child abuse that it has generated seems to come from people like me, people who are so crabby about it they snap and start challenging participants, people who already spend a lot of time and energy educating people about systemic violence. Otherwise, no one I know has said: wow. I didn’t realize child abuse is so prevalent. Or, I didn’t realize there were so many awesome organizations working to end CSA – here’s a link.

So I won’t be changing my profile picture to my favourite childhood cartoon. I WILL take to heart those friends of mine who ask what the alternative is and suggest that people check out the organization Generation Five, which aims to end child abuse within five generations. Their site offers an important framework for analyzing child abuse, resources, and ways to get involved.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to get back to my regularly scheduled Facebook programming: spying on exes and crushes, posting shallow status updates, and complaining about the new profile page.