Are social networking sites a platform for building connections and accessing support, or an online trap for developing brains?
Social media permeates the lives of young people and offers immense benefits with regards to connectedness, innovation and education. Young people learn skills in problem solving and strategy from online gaming. They create and share incredible multimedia. They connect with others, engage with current political events and become global citizens. At any time of day, they can access a space where they feel understood and supported by their peers. Yet, youth engagement with social media has long been branded fraught with dangers. A considerable amount of research and commentary shine the light on cyber bullying and the ever-feared online adult predator. But, are these concerns founded?
Robyn Treyvaud, internationally recognised expert in online safety and founder of Cyber Safe Kids, said: “Governments and national government organisations focus on the glass half empty.” She believes the benefits of online social networking are often overlooked and fears about bullying and predators misplaced. There are considerable benefits to be found in the online world, a place Treyvaud affectionately calls ‘Cyberia’. What’s really important is that young people know how to navigate its complexities.
Social media, including sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, can be defined as websites and applications facilitating the creation and sharing of content, and participation in social networking. Young people see social media as a news source, a platform for social and political commentary, and an educational resource. All are fully integrated into their lives. Treyvaud explains: “For kids, there’s no differentiation between online and offline, it’s just life.” This is a way of living older adults can struggle to comprehend. The hardware is a mere component of the complexity; it’s clear the conversation needs to shift from a focus on the technology to consider the sociology and psychology.
When it comes to mental health, being online may have some psychological benefits. The autonomy and perceived anonymity of the online space appear to permit young people a certain freedom of self-expression. One study found that half of children and youths aged 9-16 feel they are more able to be themselves online, as compared to face-to-face interactions. Similarly, one-third reported talking about private matters when online that they would not discuss in person. But while the partition of a screen can be incredibly liberating, it also permits young people to depersonalise their interactions.
Adolescence represents an important period of identity formation and experimentation. For the adolescent who wishes to try on and test out different identities, social media may facilitate the freedom necessary to experiment. In the online world, anyone can be or say anything with ease. Yet, at the same time, the necessary skills for communicating in person aren’t being challenged and developed. Treyvaud said: “They’re using abbreviated language and emojis. They’re not able to articulate their feelings face-to-face. Kids know that about themselves and they worry about that.”
Conversely, the freedom of expression facilitates a freedom to seek support about issues they find embarrassing. Discussions around mental health and the sharing of mental health struggles have become increasingly commonplace online. Young people perceive Twitter to be a safe space for expressing their concerns. They report tweeting about their mental health in order to create a sense of community, raise awareness, combat stigma, cope, and achieve empowerment.
Twitter is by no means the only platform used to these ends. In her TEDx talk, Tara Ösp Tjörvadóttir describes her experience of using Facebook to unburden herself from the stigma she felt in relation to her depression. “I made real life, lifetime connections,” she said. “Stories create empathy. Empathy fights stigma and less stigma means we ask for help and get better sooner.” Young people both maintain existing relationships online, and create new ones. Treyvaud states that such relationships “often have incredibly positive impacts on their health and wellbeing…[online] is where they feel they have their network of support”.
On Facebook, status updates sharing difficult experiences and disclosing mental health diagnoses are often posted impulsively, but can garner support and understanding from friends. Matt* reports his experience of stigma: “I never really felt comfortable talking about [my depression] …I got sick of it all and took to Facebook”. However, his decision was somewhat impulsive: “I was in a bad state and it was kind of a 'in the heat of the moment' thing.” While his decision was impulsive and closely followed by regret, it eventually worked out in his favour. “I now feel more comfortable talking about it, and take comfort in knowing that other people have an idea of what's going on,” he said.
The impact of online support on depressive symptoms and quality of life remains difficult to measure. One study found that only the absence of a negative response is predictive of improved wellbeing. However, potential sampling bias makes studying this phenomenon difficult; individuals with higher levels of distress may post with greater frequency.
Whilst the many advantages of social media use by young people mustn’t be ignored, there are risks that need to be managed. One of the more dangerous issues associated with social media use is cyber bullying, which is perhaps one of the most frequently discussed potential harms associated with social networking. Treyvaud doesn’t deny that it is a concern; however, there appears to be little consensus regarding its frequency and prevalence. Moreover, both adolescent psychiatrist Dr Rice and Treyvaud agree that cyber bullying is an extension of face-to-face bullying, and not a unique phenomenon itself. What is unique is that social media turns bullying into a 24/7 experience.
However, Treyvaud notes that “there are things that more kids are dealing with more of the time than the bullying”. Internet pornography and pressures to post sexualised images, distraction from vocational commitments, and implications for relationships and emotional expression all pose considerable concerns. Treyvaud said: “We need to be really, really concerned and focusing much more on those sorts of issues because it’s going to have much more significant impact on society, on family, on community and most importantly on the relationships between [young people].”
Internet pornography has spread beyond specified pornography sites. Young people often encounter pornography inadvertently. “They come across violence…sexual violence…that really disturbs them,” Treyvaud said. Often, they feel they can’t discuss what they see with adults, for fear of being judged or denied access to their online world altogether. Unfortunately, much of online pornography does not depict healthy sexual relationships. Treyvaud believes pornography is seeping into social networking sites and fueling pressures for young people to post sexually explicit images of themselves. She explains: “Girls say ‘the more skin you show the more likes you get and the more attention you get from the boys’.” Digital identities become built around physical appearances that are often sexualised. Treyvaud emphasises the importance of this issue, and bemoans the lack of attention she feels it’s garnering. It’s clear issue is a topic of discussion in and of itself.
Distraction and the inefficiency of multitasking pose significant productivity related concerns. Considerable family conflict arises around a young person’s use of social media during academic pursuits. It has become commonplace for young people to have Facebook open in one tab, their assignment in another, and their mobile phone on their desk. According to Treyvaud, parents often don’t know how to combat their child’s multiple distractions, and young people are noticing a decline in the quality of their work. There’s a pressure to be constantly connected to one’s social network, often to the detriment of healthy and sensible time management.
Add to this the well-known effects of computerised lighting on melatonin release and sleep quality and there’s a perfect storm. Surprisingly, Treyvaud sees this as a concern with which young people are easily engaged. She reports: “kids are truly grateful for the information and they are the first ones to go away and do something proactive about it.” Guidelines built on well-established evidence are key.
Young people often engage in posting with limited thought as to the vulnerabilities they face by sharing, and in the opinion of some, over sharing personal information. Whilst wall posts might be visible to a limited audience, adolescents often aren’t as literate in online privacy as they perceive themselves to be. Treyvaud considers the complexity of this phenomenon in relation to posts about mental health. “That’s a huge responsibility for their friends or acquaintances that the status is visible to,” she said. “Some kids take [mental health posts by friends] very seriously.” This is clearly an area that needs to be discussed with students, and addressed through the development of appropriate guidelines.
However, many guidelines imposed by adults have their foundations and rationales in the offline world. Treyvaud explains “When young people got online initially, adults were trying to find an offline equivalent [on which to base] the rules and guidelines.” Such guidelines are excellent for setting a moral compass but the practicalities and norms of the offline world have little place online. Young people are left feeling as though they cannot turn to adults when things go awry. Nicole* was targeted by a series of anonymous people in her early adolescence. “People I'd never met would add me and threaten to harm me in some way (kill, rape, assault etc.) [It was] not something I felt I could share with my parents lest I get in trouble,” she said.
Many school-based programs address where to access support. Instructions about how to respond to online appeals for support may benefit young people. Treyvaud also believes this is a place for mental health clinicians to offer advice to young people. Clinicians, she argues, must be literate with respect to the online world: “You’ve got to go where your clients and patients are.”
Dr Rice agrees that the online world is potentially “an excellent space for connectedness and support”. It is the nature of the interactions themselves, rather than the technology, that determines the quality of the experience. In his mind, things can turn ugly fast. “Clinician moderation is a way to sanitise that space and make it safer but it's not scalable...education is a way to go.” However, those in the field are yet to decide what such education should and should not include.
Cyberia seems to be a landscape of creativity and connection, yet one with hidden pitfalls. Young people are tasked with the challenge of navigating around these traps, almost exclusively without the guidance of adults. When they succeed, Cyberia offers incredible rewards. Treyvaud laments that she’s not a young person today. Armed with current technology “the things [kids] create are just awesome”. It’s just a matter of finding a map, becoming an informed digital citizen, and then navigating with skill.
Edited by Deborah Kane