FeaturesSocial media: a force for good?

Social media: a force for good?

Teenagers love to use social platforms, whether or not adults concur, so how can you help young people and parents to glean the best from them while avoiding the pitfalls? Journalist Kathy Oxtoby reports.

The influence of social media is global, from connecting groups with niche interests to disseminating news from conflict zones and uniting people behind a common cause. And while Community Practitioner has previously looked at the negative and positive effects of social media on young people, the examples of how it’s been harnessed to transform lives for good, including for teenagers, seem to be growing.

One much-praised recent example is footballer Marcus Rashford’s use of social media to drive his campaign against child food poverty, persuade the UK Government to expand free school meals, and to speak out on issues such as racism in sport. Since

last year, his leverage of social media has been studied by young people taking the GCSE media studies course with exam board AQA. ‘His addition to the course will not only enable young people to study his use of social media as a way of influencing and engaging, but it will also enable them to learn more about the social and race issues he raises,’ says AQA (2021).

Using social media to raise awareness about poverty, prejudice and injustice is ‘not just a passing fad – it’s here to stay’, says social media expert Jem Bahaijoub of London-based Jem Bahaijoub Consulting. The impact of powerful hashtags that are changing lives and shaping history (such as #BlackLivesMatter) are a case in point.

Social media is speaking to young people directly through their laptops and smartphones, influencing their lives. And it’s a two-way conversation that most of them are taking part in.

A recent Ofcom report highlighted the sheer scale of social media use among children and young people: More than 60% of children aged three to 17 had their own profile on at least one social media app or site in 2021, rising to more than nine in 10 (94%) for 16- to 17-year-olds. Despite being under the minimum age requirement – 13 for most social media sites – 33% of those aged five to seven and twice as many aged eight to 11 (60%) said they had a social media profile (Ofcom, 2022).

Impossible to avoid

Parents may not like their children using social media, but they can’t afford to ignore it. Social media is the language of the digitally raised ‘Generation Z’, and if parents don’t already speak that language they need to learn it. So how can you support young people in using the more positive side of social media?

A starting point is for parents or community practitioners (CPs) to have conversations with them, says Stevie Golding, parent helpline co-manager for charity YoungMinds. ‘Be inquisitive about why they like social media and what they use it for. Explore their social media feeds with them, so that you’re coming from a place of understanding. If you’re always negative about social media, that will close the conversation down straight away.’

Will Gardner is CEO of Childnet – a charity that promotes positive online experiences – and a director of the UK Safer Internet Centre. He recommends parents talk to their children about their online activities, including asking what their favourite apps are – popular ones include YouTube, Instagram and TikTok. Each will have an age requirement (often 13), and it is important to be aware of these.

Giving young people the tools to use social media effectively can help empower them to get the most out of it, enjoyably and safely.

Robert Saull, NSPCC senior manager for child safety online, advises parents, carers and professionals to spend some time with their child or the child they are supporting by exploring the privacy settings on their devices and social media platforms.

It’s also important to talk to children about who they are connecting and communicating with online. ‘Make sure it’s only people they can trust, such as school friends and family members,’ Robert says.

To protect their online reputation, Will says young people should be encouraged to ‘think before you post. Content posted online can be shared publicly by anyone who sees it.’

CPs can help empower parents by signposting them to resources and advice so they can learn about social media, or boost their knowledge and understanding of it (see Resources).

Armed with that insight, parents will then be better placed to set some ground rules with their children about their use of social media. ‘Give children permission to have creative down time on social media, but not to be endlessly scrolling,’ advises Stevie. ‘Agree the times – such as mealtimes – when all devices are switched off.’

Multi-purpose platform

So what transformative powers of social media should adults be encouraging young people to seek out? Time spent online can be productive, fulfilling and rewarding. ‘Social media allows young people to be creative, and provides a fantastic platform for entertainment, communication and learning,’ says Will.

Social media platforms also provide ‘a great way for young people to stay connected with their friends and family’, says Robert. ‘This was particularly important for young people during national lockdowns, which saw children isolated for many months.’

Social media can also offer ‘an accessible way to connect with others with similar interests and hobbies’, says David Wright, a director of the UK Safer Internet Centre.

Jem says: ‘Social media has made niche topics mainstream – whatever passions we have, we can find our community and “tribe” on social media and feel less alone.

‘It can also create important discussions and awareness around positive movements and campaigns, including [those] that may have otherwise gone unnoticed.’

Social media campaigns that have changed or are working to change social norms include Dove’s #NoDigitalDistortion movement.

This is aimed at helping youngmpeople build confidence and a positive body image on social platforms. Meanwhile, Project Nanhi Kali, a programme that offers quality education to underprivileged young women in India, has partnered with business conglomerate the Mahindra Group to raise awareness about the advancement of education of girls in India via the #EveryGirlMatters campaign.

Staying safe on social media

  • Have active discussions about safer internet use
  • Know how to report harmful content – visit reportharmfulcontent.com
  • Encourage critical thinking about misinformation and ways it can present itself
  • Use filtering options/parental controls where necessary. See swgfl.org.uk/resources/checklists
  • Support for professionals needing advice is available via the Professionals Online Safety Helpline at bit.ly/POSH_advice

Thousands of young people are proving a force to be reckoned as they use social media to campaign on a wide range of issues. These include period poverty (freeperiods.org), young health champions (bit.ly/RSPH_champions), as well as cyber bullying (bit.ly/online_anti_bullying) and climate change (fridaysforfuture.org). 

Social media has even been reported to have a positive impact on adolescent mental health. Ofcom’s recent report states that more than half of 13- to 17-year-olds agreed that being online was good for their mental health (53%), seven in 10 said that it made them feel closer to their friends and peers, and eight in 10 used online services to find support for their wellbeing (Ofcom, 2022).

Social media sites can also be used to directly support young people’s mental wellbeing. For example, the counselling service Childline has message boards on its website, which are ‘a monitored safe space where young people can talk to their peers about anything that is going on for them’, says Robert.

Navigating the other side

Of course, there is a dark side to using social media for young people – Jen says it can become ‘an echo chamber for negative opinions and prejudices’. Additionally, young people can encounter risks on social media platforms, such as bullying, grooming and exposure to sexually explicit or inappropriate content, warns Robert.

To avoid the pitfalls of social media, Robert says it’s important that teens talk to an adult they trust about what’s happened to get advice and support. That adult should then report the content or the user to the website or the platform it appeared on to get it removed. 

Young people should never share personal information such as their address with those they’ve met online. And they should be encouraged to adopt the mindset of not uploading anything they wouldn’t want their parents, teachers or future employers to see, to mute accounts that make them feel bad about themselves, and be encouraged to follow accounts that make them ‘happy and confident’.

Legal steps

Aiming to make the UK ‘the safest place in the world to be online’, the UK’s Online Safety Bill, published in March, is currently being examined by MPs and will eventually be enforced by Ofcom (Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, 2022).

Social media platforms are also taking steps to become a more positive experience for young people. David explains that many platforms have included wellbeing features in recent years ‘to help support young people with their online experience’, such as tools for limiting screen time, supporting resources, and guidance and services for wellbeing – such as filtering options – as well as ways to help limit potentially harmful material.

Many platforms, including TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat, also have reporting and blocking features as well as community guidelines on what is and isn’t allowed on their platforms (see Resources).

But more needs to be done to protect and support children and young people from the pitfalls of social media, children’s charities believe. In its Time to act report, the NSPCC gives solutions to improve the Online Safety Bill’s response to child sexual abuse, including giving Ofcom the ability to make firms use proactive technology to identify child abuse and grooming in private messaging (NSPCC, 2022).

And YoungMinds is calling on the government to force social media companies to take action on the addictive effects of its platforms on young people.

More education for young people – and their parents – about using social media would help to ensure that everyone can make the most of its benefits while avoiding its harms. Recognising this need, in

May the charity Internet Matters launched Digital Matters – a free, interactive digital learning platform for primary school pupils, to enable children to ‘practice making choices in the digital world based on real-life scenarios’.

CPs can also be part of a joined-up approach to social media education – supporting and advising young people and their parents on how to navigate social media so that it becomes an enriching experience – perhaps even inspiring the next generation of campaigners.

It’s important that teens talk to an adult they trust about what’s happened to get advice and support. that adult should then report the content or user to the website or platform

‘Education about social media is key,’ stresses Stevie, ‘Moreover, it’s not just a one-off conversation in a PHSE lesson at school; it’s a conversation that needs to start at home. Because technology is constantly evolving, and it’s important to stay on top of the latest developments, all of us need to keep that conversation going.’



AQA. (2021) Marcus Rashford to feature in AQA’s GCSE Media Studies course. See: aqa.org.uk/news/marcus-rashford-to-feature-in-aqas-gcse-media-studies-course (accessed 9 June 2022). 

Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport. (2022) Online Safety Bill: factsheet. See: gov.uk/government/publications/online-safety-bill-supporting-documents/online-safety-bill-factsheet (accessed 9 June 2022).   

NSPCC. (2022) Time to act: an assessment of the Online Safety Bill against the NSPCC’s six tests for protecting children. See: www.nspcc.org.uk/globalassets/documents/research-reports/time-to-act.pdf (accessed 9 June 2022).    

Ofcom. (2022) Children and parents: media use and attitudes report 2022. See: www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0024/234609/childrens-media-use-and-attitudes-report-2022.pdf (accessed 9 June 2022).

UK Safer Internet Centre. (2022) Personal communication.

Image credit | Shutterstock| Getty

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