It’s been hard to escape the Ice Bucket Challenge this last week. If you go anywhere online, you will see celebrities and ordinary people, standing in their gardens while a bucket of ice-cold water is dumped over their head. It’s quite amusing. Especially because so many people don’t grasp just how heavy a bucket of water can be and fall over spectacularly while trying to pour it over themselves.

The challenge is supposed to be in aid of Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), more commonly known as motor neurone disease. Yet, I had to Google ALS to see what it stood for. And therein lies the problem.

I must have seen upwards of 40 ice bucket challenges in the last few days. Each of them is supposed to be ‘raising awareness’ of this disease. But I know nothing more about ALS than when I had never heard of the ice bucket challenge. What awareness has been raised?

The charity that inspired this latest viral craze, the ALS Association, has received £9.4 million in less than a month because of the challenge. This is obviously a fantastic thing, and the charity must be thrilled.

But still, the concept concerns me. The vast, vast majority of those who make these videos do not donate money. Nor do they appear to have been inspired to give their time to the ALS Association, or to go out of their way to educate others about motor neurone disease. But a simple name-check for ALS, a few seconds of freezing water, and boom – our good deed for the year has been done. Pat on the back. Well done us.

Is this really what activism has become? A click of the Like button on Facebook, a signature to an online petition, a change of a profile picture. None of this is worthless, but is it really what charities and good causes truly need?

Those familiar, weasel words ‘raising awareness’ have almost become a kind of get-out clause for millennials. Rather than the sacrificial act of donating to a good cause, we take the easier path of tweeting a platitude, or filming a funny video to post on our news feeds. I’m probably being too cynical, but I fear that we use ‘raising awareness’ as a cover for our laziness and to project an image of ourselves as kind-hearted altruists.

What awareness needed to be raised for cancer, a disease that affects almost every family in Britain, when we were all busily Instagramming our no make-up selfies a few months ago? Can we honestly say we didn’t share that selfie at least partly so that dozens of kind friends would comment, saying how good we look without make-up?

Instead, Jesus says: “Beware of practising your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them… When you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets…But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”

In a surprisingly close-to-the-bone campaign in Sweden last year, adverts for Unicef read: “Like us on Facebook and we will vaccinate zero children against polio.” There’s an uncomfortable truth behind this that none of us want to acknowledge. Social media campaigns don’t save lives or change the world; only cold, hard cash and generously donated time can do that.

So next time you’re tempted to jump on the latest activist bandwagon, why not consider dipping into your pocket at the same time as snapping that selfie or tweeting that hashtag? You never know, it might achieve more than any number of retweets ever could.


Image credit: Anthony Quintano via flickr cc

Written by Tim Wyatt // Follow Tim on  Twitter

Tim Wyatt is a journalist for the Church Times. He lives in North London and is becoming increasingly uncomfortable writing about himself in the third person.

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