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If You Go Down To The Digital Woods Today…

The older generation will remember the first miraculous introduction of email at work or hold a sense of nostalgia for the screeches, beeps and pops synonymous with waiting for the ‘dial-up’ internet connection. These are Digital Immigrants, those brought up before widespread access to the internet and digital technology.

Children and young people growing up today, however, are able to gain access to this new digital wilderness almost as soon as they can jab at the smooth surface of a touchscreen. They are the Digital Natives of this new world. 

Globally around 71% of 15–24-year-olds are online, making them the most connected age group worldwide. However, this access to infinite online content at an early age has led to increasing concerns about the potential negative impact on young peoples mental health, wellbeing, and social skills. 

Some Grim Fairytales

“The internet is a scary place, where scary people do scary things!” – this is often the battle cry of the digitally naive when they speak about the dangers of unchecked web access for young people. Unfortunately, to a certain degree, they are right. The internet can be a dangerous neighbourhood and present a diverse range of potential risks.

Picture Little Red Riding Hood, taking a wander through the web in search of a hilarious meme or a handful of Instagram likes. As she bounds through the digital forest she must be on the lookout not only for wolves but other digital predators, cyber-bullies and careless social media posts or comments that might come back to haunt her.

Not only this but she needs to be careful where, how and with whom she interacts in case she picks up an unwanted computer virus or unwittingly shares her private information or intimate images. Gone too are the days where schoolyard bullying ends with the school day. This new digital playground has allowed cyber bullies to stalk their victims anywhere they go, causing suffering and humiliation at the press of a button.

(Anti) Social Media?

When it comes to assigning blame to ‘harmful’ corners of the web, Social Media is often at the forefront. Currently, the most popular services among young people are Instagram and Youtube. Instagram boasts over 600 million active users and 66,000 posts per minute. 72% of young people aged 13 – 17 use the app for an average of 32 minutes per day. Youtube has over 300 hours of videos uploaded every minute and around 5 billion videos watched per day; Young people now watch youtube more than they do television.

Concerns continue to be raised about how this content is moderated so as to prevent young people from being exposed to potential bullying, harmful images, and inappropriate content.

Yet this grim tale is not the whole story. The internet also provides young people with a  whole range of positive benefits and opportunities for development. Research by the ‘Young and Well Cooperative’ suggests that social networking can play a vital role in young peoples development through educational opportunities; Helping them develop supportive relationships and build self-esteem.

The Digital Goldilocks Hypothesis

When considering how to respond to the apparent positive and negative effects of social media we can learn a lesson from another fairytale. Goldilocks was quick to discover that moderation in porridge (neither too hot or too cold) and beds (neither too hard or too soft) was the key to positive wellbeing and things feelings ‘just right’.

The same is true of the internet and social media. Research involving 120,000 young people in the UK in 2017, found unsurprisingly that high levels of screen time (2+ hours a day) were linked with poor mental health. Yet they also noted that extremely low or no screen time was also associated with poor mental health and wellbeing. In essence, ‘no internet access or smartphone use’ had the same effects on wellbeing as ‘2+ hours of use’. They suggested that for smartphones, optimum wellbeing was achieved around 1 hour of usage per day.

Increasing awareness and starting the conversation

The advent of new technologies always raises fear among the public, the internet, and social media are no different. However, we need to learn to separate the fairytales from the useful information. In many instances, the current advice recommends that you monitor and limit access to minimise potential harm. Yet this advice may also limit access to all the positive social, emotional and educational benefits of the digital landscape for young people. So how do we get things just right? We have outlined some recommendations for supporting young people to stay safe online;

1) Update your own Knowledge: Can’t tell a Twitter from a Tumblr or a ‘wink’ from a ‘like’, still think a # is just a button on your phone keypad? Perhaps it’s time to update your own knowledge about the digital world. Many parents would rather their children were not exposed to digital media at all, yet have no idea how to guide them through it. Adults must be supported to become sufficiently digitally literate so they, in turn, are able to support young people to use the internet and social media safely.

2) Avoid ‘Banning’ where possible and appropriate: It is clear that young people have a desire to communicate with one another digitally. So far attempts at censorship on social media haven’t worked and stopping access all together may have a detrimental effect on wellbeing. It is far better to talk openly with young people and engage in a dialogue about where and how they choose to engage online. Talk to them about their usage, is it more than 1 hour per day? Try to understand how they live their digital lives rather than simply trying to lock the door. They will find a way through.

3) Support young people to build their ‘Digital Resilience’: As an informed adult you can support young people to manage and cope with the potential risks and hazards attached to the vast amounts of unregulated and often unsolicited information available at their fingertips. You can also help them identify and harness the potential for the internet and social media as a powerful source of positive information and something that develops their wellbeing rather than damages it.