YCW Magazine May 2018

Social Media and the Interconnected Life

What’s the dream?

The rise of social media, exacerbated by the invention of the smartphone, has seen a plethora of reactions from those in the secular and faith-orientated world. Some demonise the smartphones and platforms such as Snapchat and Messenger, blaming these for the reluctance of children and young people to spend time outside or with family and friends among other things. Some think that in order to reach young people with any kind of news, including the Good News, we must be conversant in all the different forms of social media our young people and children are into. Some have been using social media for years, have introduced their children to it and don’t see what the problem is.

The reality is that our reactions are likely to be a mix of each of these viewpoints. The ability to connect with people feeds a very real human need for community and being known, a need we were created with, being made in the image of the triune God. This is why the rise of social media has been rapid, with many losses along the way (Sixdegrees.com was the first – I’d never heard of it! MySpace, anyone?), but is unlikely to go away altogether anytime soon. Ask anyone who is bed or home bound and they will tell you how vital Facebook and Twitter are for them to feel connected to people in a way that would not otherwise be possible. Ask any teen or ‘tweenager’ and they will tell you how vital it is that they can stay in contact with their friends. Add in the ‘I want one of those’ factor (not the website, though that works on the same principle) for much younger ones and we have a recipe for the findings of the latest Children’s Commissioner’s report that, among other things, has recommended that social media companies should be paying attention to the needs of those users under 13 years old, either by incorporating them into the platform or do more to address underage use. There were other recommendations for Government, parents and school too.

If the dream is to have the ability to be connected to people in different places around the world, then social media is the best thing since sliced bread!

If the dream is to see our children and young people become resilient and able to change the world for the better then social media also plays its part, but with some very significant caveats!

How do we develop this?

We need to be careful about demonising social media. The Children’s Commissioner’s Report was published and the response was varied: ‘Children as young as what now?!’, ‘Schools need to do more’ (a standard response to most news about children or young people!), ‘Parents should just say no’; now whilst I think there is something in the parenting thing, as schools workers we should have something to add to this conversation. Certainly, it can be argued that there ought to be more about the impact of social media included in PSHE lessons, but for those of us working with teens and pre-teens we ought to be including this in our work.

Last month we looked at transition and briefly mentioned how social media is blurring the lines between primary and secondary school age groups. When we look at the information highlighted in the Children’s Commissioner’s report we see that children as young as 8 are accessing social media, usually from their parents’ phone and therefore via their parents’ accounts on Facebook or the like. This need not be the disaster that it sounds, for many 8 year olds (like my own) this is done by leaning over my shoulder, watching videos that I have said Come and have a look at this. Or by using my Instagram to ‘like’ every photo of cute kittens/babies/fluffy animals while I watch.

More worrying is the switch to WhatsApp for the 11 – 14yr olds, and then you throw in the teacher in the States who did an anonymous survey with 80 14 year olds, asking them to finish the sentence ‘What my parents don’t know about my social media is…’ Answers like ‘that I have Instagram when I’m not supposed to’ ‘that I have a secret rant account’ ‘how to find my pictures’ and ‘that you can send and receive nudes… buy drugs…’ ‘that I’m on it until 2am everyday’ are just a few of the responses which should give us all cause to be alarmed about the health and wellbeing of our teenagers. This is NOT just an American problem, after all, it could be argued that teenagers in the Western world have more in common with each other than with the adults in their lives! The conclusion that the teacher came to when talking to her students about this is: No more talking about the dangers of social media. Just start talking. Period. These kids are looking for emotional outlets…for people who will not judge them when they make mistakes. We need to put down our own phones long enough to build face-to-face relationships so our kids don’t need to seek validation from peers and strangers.

How do we put this into practice?

This teacher’s conclusion gives us a good place to start, either as schools workers, youth/children’s workers or parents: Model good practice! Our young people and children need adults they can trust to listen and be non-judgemental, we need to be building face-to-face relationships that are supportive and caring. If we were to apply the Digital 5 a Day (see below) to our own lives, how would we fare? If we’re going to challenge our young people and children to make changes then we should be challenging ourselves as well.

The NSPCC has some excellent resources for use with primary children on staying safe online. It is crucial that our young children know about how to stay safe, and how to recognise when something isn’t right.

For those at the lower end of secondary school, a good place to start is the Digital 5 a Day recommended by the Children’s Commissioner’s. In brief the 5 elements are:

  • Connect
  • Be Active
  • Get Creative
  • Give to Others
  • Be Mindful

Using these elements daily will encourage our young people to be healthier online. You might be able to show the video from the webpage, or build these elements into sessions on self-esteem or mental health. A quick search online for ‘Digital 5 a day’ will take you to the details. I am currently working with my local YMCA in schools and we are in the middle of ensuring that our sessions include helping the teenagers we work with be more aware of the impact of social media on our own sense of self.

For older teenagers try some of the resources on here: http://mediasmart.uk.com/ or here: https://www.bullying.co.uk/

It’s time to stop demonising social media and smartphones; it’s time to stop talking about the dangers of social media and start talking. Full stop! Our children and teenagers need positive connections with people who care about them in order to thrive, and in the current cultural context this is more apparent than ever before.