We often hear or read about the dangers of young people logging on to social media platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter, and other online spaces where they can socially interact, including Youtube, virtual worlds and gaming sites. In the online world, we know adolescents can be exposed to cyberbullying, harassment, sexting, privacy breaches and sexual predators.
Despite these negatives, many parents are surprised to discover there are also many real advantages for adolescents in connecting through social media. Research tells us that social media networking can play a vital and positive role in the development of young people and their lives.
As children progress into their adolescent years, the way they interact with their family, friends and the wider world changes. These developmental changes also influence how they use social media.
Moving into adolescence
While the age at which children transition into adolescence varies from child to child, it typically begins at around 12, 13 and 14. During these years, young people experience significant brain growth and development.
We notice young people becoming more independent, spending an increasing amount of time alone and investing in their friendships, while devoting less time to their parents. This is a pivotal stage when peers begin to have a major impact on adolescents. Peers typically influence young people’s choices, attitudes and behaviours, from the clothes they wear to the movies they see and their taste in music.
Adolescents also begin to see their parents through adult eyes, which can lead to a sense of embarrassment and withdrawal. As a result, many parents often feel a sense of loss and believe they may have ‘done something wrong’ to provoke the change. In actual fact, this process is a natural psychological development in the adolescent’s journey to becoming an adult.
Social media is an extension of what goes on in the real world. It enables young people to develop friendships and connect in ways like never before. Unlike adults, many adolescents see no difference between their online and their offline worlds.
In early adolescence, social media plays an incredibly important role. It has fast become an essential tool adolescents can use to socialise and connect with their peers.
Social media has a range of benefits. It allows young people to establish their identity with pro-social peers at a time when they are laying the foundations for their independence.
Young people are able to communicate with their friends online and engage through common interests, such as following and interacting with their local sports club or dance, music or drama groups. Social media enables young people to research and share information online, showcase issues and opinions, stay up to date with school events, to socialise and to flirt.
Adolescents are also creating, uploading and modifying content. Many adolescents use social media to take photos to document what they are experiencing when they go out, before they post it online. While previous generations also documented their activities, those photos were placed in frames and albums and were not instantaneously available to their wider circle of friends.
Social media also enables young people to develop real world skills, such as managing their online presence and team collaboration.
A Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre literature review shows there are significant benefits that come with social networking services for adolescents. Social networking can help with identity formation, deliver educational outcomes and facilitate supportive relationships.
It can promote a sense of belonging and self-esteem which has the potential to build resilience, enabling adolescents to better cope with change and stressful events.
Maximising these benefits can work to protect young people from the risks of online interaction.
Peer influence online
Studies show that peer influence during adolescence is far more powerful than parental influence. We know that peers help shape the behaviour and attitudes of young people offline and online, driving their social media use.
Sexting is an online trend where adolescents send, receive or forward sexually explicit messages or photos. While parents may find this behaviour bizarre and high-risk, research reveals more than half of adolescents are engaging in sexting. For many young people, sexting is a common form of flirting.
The downside of sexting is that the images and messages can be rapidly distributed via devices and social media platforms, leading to long-term reputation damage and legal issues. Several Australian teenagers who consensually filmed themselves having sex before distributing it online were later charged under child pornography legislation and have been added to the sex offender register. Unfortunately, their online actions will now have consequences that will haunt them for the rest of their lives.
Staying safe online
Young people’s brains are continuing to grow and develop throughout their adolescent years. Especially in early adolescence, many young people are unable to predict the consequences of their actions.
It’s imperative that parents continue to teach, monitor and protect their children when it comes to cyber safety. Adolescents must learn how to use the internet in a safe, smart and responsible way. It’s just as important for parents to teach their children about cyber safety as it is about teaching them how to swim or to safely cross the road.
Unfortunately, this is a message that we’re still struggling to communicate. Many parents find addressing cyber safety overwhelming and, all too often, it’s relegated to the too-hard basket.
We need to get smarter about how we educate children and adolescents, parents and schools about social media and cyber safety. The government is making vital inroads through the Office of the Children’s eSafety Commissioner but there is still much room for improvement.
Parents need access to greater education and schools need to better implement their cyber safety policies. We need improved regulation of cyber safety education in schools, with transparency around the qualifications of accredited training providers.
Despite these challenges, social media needs to be seen as an important asset for adolescents at a crucial stage in their development. The positive psychology movement tells us that one of the most significant contributors to wellbeing is equipping yourself with a rich repertoire of friends.
There are clear downsides to young people tapping into social media but we know the benefits far outweigh the disadvantages.
Disclosure statement: Michael Carr-Gregg does not receive remuneration from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article. Michael is a member of the Australian Psychological Society (APS) and is a member of the APS ePsychology special interest group.