Lets talk about the positive role of social media for young people. Allowing our children to engage in social media can be great for their development and even their mental health. Yes I know, it isn’t something that sits well with many parents as they bemoan the ‘head in the device mumble’ that comes from their tween or teen. Or maybe it allows you a little sigh of relief so you don’t have to keep fighting and nagging and cursing the day Zuckerberg & co decided to make profiles, newsfeed and ‘likes’ the new reality. But either way, it goes against much of what we hear so often, about the failings of todays youth, as they withdraw further into their own worlds of emojis, abbreviations, snaps and instas.
And certainly our immersion into social media is not without its dangers and drawbacks. There are those who rely far too heavily on the likes and followers for their sense of self esteem and self worth. There are those who become so immersed that they forget to participate in other areas of their life that help provide the balance they need. And certainly there are those whose online interactions and connections have resulted in everything from annoying drama to downright devastation. Social networks also help expose them to a myriad sights not made for their vulnerable minds.
But with all things in life there is usually good and bad. There is usually a sense of balance required. There are usually many factors that determine the extent of that good or bad. And there is usually a role played by peoples behaviours, rather than simply the technology, the platforms and the networks themselves.
So what benefits can the social networks really have on our children’s development and sense of wellbeing?
Let’s take a look at some of the things I have observed from young people’s feeds in recent weeks.
Social Media for Social Good
There is definitely a heightened sense of social awareness and becoming active citizens in helping to implement change and raise awareness of issues. I have seen young girls raise money for koalas by sharing their drawings of the cute Aussie icon. I have seen families participate together in table tennis challenges to help end child slavery. We have seen young people urging others to be the best they can be and reach out in kindness in light of political situations that arouse fear. I have seen young people talk about poverty and I’ve seen them encouraging and applauding the achievements of those seen as disadvantaged. One only needs to read about the success of crowdfunding to realise the impact that social media has on our social conscience but also our ability to more easily become involved in things that matter.
The sharing of other peoples lives and experience does help to develop a sense of empathy. Of course we know too, that access to 24/7 media can have the adverse impact of making people seem less impacted by what we see, but I for one, have also been witness to the opposite. The use of social media and the proliferation of video and video sharing does allow us to be brought closer to understanding the plight of others. It does make us feel more connected and more willing to reach out. Many will not forget the little Syrian boys body on the beach, that sent an overwhelming gasp of horror across the globe.
I notice this more with boys (thats not to say girls are not emotional online), but it has been one of my more surprising discoveries. We are working hard to break down the traditional notion of boys being emotionally stoic and unable to show vulnerable emotion for fear of being called out as ‘less manly’. I used to love watching the emotion I would see from boys and men on a sporting field as they hugged fellow players, cried in happiness and sadness and kissed their teammates. It always proved to me that they crave not only the outpouring of this emotion, but the connection with others in a way that didn’t call them out as ‘sissy’. Whilst we are coming a long way, I think social media does and will continue to play a role in this. I recently observed the social media feeds of my teenage son and was pleasantly surprised at the love these friends have for each other. There were kisses, and love heart emojis amongst all the ‘love you bro’s’. Now of course it is easier to be that way online than in real life and some of it may certainly ‘tongue in cheek’, but I think it certainly shows that we all have a need for connection and outward emotion. I think social media will actually help to make this Ok, and to make it the norm.
A platform and a voice
It is true that many people are braver online with their words than they are in real life. We talk often about the negative impact of the keyboard warriors hurling their abuse and personal attacks whilst they remain tucked safely behind the screen. And certainly there is no end of this type of behaviour. However. For many young people, shy, introverted, maybe not given a platform before, then the online world allows for them a place to have a voice and to be heard. They can publicly present themselves in a way they may be otherwise unable or less inclined to do so in real life. It is no surprise that when you walk in to a room full of bloggers or social media influencers, a large majority are usually shy and far more socially anxious in real life, whilst their online spaces give them a place to more confidently share their voice.
There is a lot of etiquette that comes with communicating online. Being part of a team or group chat or collaboration allows young people to learn those social norms and etiquettes and to be a valued member of a group whilst still participating in a public space. They may not always get it right, but it is an area we want most of our children to succeed in. They soon get to know know what behaviours work for them and those that do them no favours.
Young people are constantly taking photos, videos and finding content to share and comment on. Discovering new content and modifying and critically evaluating it, both as a representation of what they believe and as a way to express themselves and their ideas and beliefs, is becoming the norm. Content creation will play a big part in many of their lives. Learning what to share and how to evaluate it whilst they are young, is a skill they are developing constantly without even being aware.
There is a lot of content out there. Searching through the bombardment of irrelevant, untrue, the dangerous and the rubbish is another skill unto itself. As our kids scroll through their saturated feeds of content they are constantly having to critically evaluate what is worthy, what requires exploration and discovery and what is relevant to their world. We need our children to be thinking critically every time they go online, and certainly their social media feeds help them to learn these skills.
We still need to be aware of how young people are individually using the technology. We need to ask ourselves if our child is emotionally and developmentally ready for social media . We need to see how they are responding to social media as part of their individual wellbeing. We need to monitor the child and not just the technology.
The skills our children need today are changing. Engaging in social media helps them to develop these skills that will become critical as they grow.