In recent days parents have once again been warned about their children’s use of social media. Terms such as ‘addiction’, ‘risk’ and ‘danger’ have featured in a large number of newspaper stories that depict our children and teens as pale-faced and passive addicts, incapable of tearing themselves away from their screen life and prey to bullies and criminals. Those of us at present coping with the seven-week school holidays may have felt rising guilt at the amount of time our own child is spending online.
While there is always a need to encourage parental monitoring and restriction of the use of social media – things I write and talk about to parents on a regular basis – there is also a need to remind ourselves of some of the good aspects of social media. So here is a short list of some of the positives that researchers have identified.
Adolescence is a time of exploration and growth. A significant part of growing up involves trying on new and different identities and learning how to form new relationships with peers. It has been described as ‘learning how to stand out and how to fit in at the same time’. Social media can help with both of these.
A Facebook page or Instagram feed is the perfect place to display affiliations with particular teams, bands or social causes – and is easily changed as tastes change. It is also a space that belongs completely to you – perhaps the first for many teens. You can decorate it as you wish, exclude those you do not wish to let in, and demonstrate your enthusiasms and connections. As you try on different identities, social media is a safe place to try these out before venturing into the real world. We know, for instance, that many gay teens come out online anonymously before coming out to family and friends in the real world.
Close friendships in adolescence involve the development of trust and self-disclosure. The online environment can offer a place where friendships can be developed and deepened. This is perhaps particularly important at the moment when school friends can find it difficult to meet up regularly over the holidays if separated by distance. Social media provides a space for the continuance of friendship groups, even if just for the exchange of chatter, jokes and the apparently never-ending stream of memes.
The asynchronous nature of much of online communication can also help those who struggle with face-to-face interaction. The ability to consider and take time over posts, and the more controllable and predictable environment of social media, means that young people with conditions such as ASD may find social media easier than real-time conversations because they are able to maintain more control over social interaction.
Other benefits of online friendships that have been identified by academic researchers include increased self-esteem and ‘social capital’. If you are a particularly geeky teen with an interest in Star Trek or a minority sport, there may be few people who share your interest around you in real life. However, online you will be able to find many others happy to discuss your particular interest in the minutest detail – and perhaps also to express admiration of your own knowledge. Teens can join groups and communities that reflect different aspects of their identity or interests that they wish to explore.
There is also a growing body of research that suggests that, for young males in particular, technology appeals as a place to safely seek help for mental-health problems. For many young men it is difficult to admit to such problems, particular in a society that places a premium on masculine silence, strength and stoicism. This can stop young men from seeking help from more traditional sources such as health professionals. The internet offers increased confidentiality and the possibility of anonymity.
The clear message that comes from such research is that social media can be both advantageous and harmful for young people. It is not all bad or all good – the reality lies somewhere between the two extremes. Yes, we should talk to our children about how to be safe online, and should encourage a healthy lifestyle that includes some, but not too much, online time. But sometimes, when reading the latest report or news article warning about the horrors of social media, it is important to keep a balanced approach and remember that there are also positives for teens online.
Sarah Pedersen is a Professor of Communication and Media and the Director of Research in Communication, Marketing and Media