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Monday 30 June 2014, Shirley Dent

Teens and social media: everything in moderation?

With a bit of adult guidance, children should be free to interact and experiment online.

It’s official. Facebook still has – in the words of tech journalist Stuart Dredge – ‘BFF status with teens’. According to a survey of US 12- to 17-year-olds by Forrester, three quarters of the young respondents use Facebook. Half reported they are using it more than they did a year ago.

Social media, it seems, is here to stay – an indispensable, inescapable part of growing up. With children playing and participating in online communities such as Moshi Monsters, Bin Weevils and Club Penguin when they are still at primary school, social media presents children’s content providers with a ready-made, already-engaged audience. What’s not to like?

Plenty, it would seem. The young social-media audience is not only an audience that answers back, it also talks to itself. And that conversation sometimes has little or no self-imposed editorial brakes. For all the benefits of instant connection and discussion with friends from potentially across the globe, there are also well-publicised concerns about young people and peer pressure on social-media sites. From tragic cases of teenage suicide linked to online forums to the excesses of viral crazes such as Neknominate, headlines can lead us to believe a digital Lord of the Flies is playing out online.

So is more rigorous moderation – even regulation – the answer? Where does this leave children’s media who want to – in creative, fun and educational ways – interactively engage those online communities from ever-younger ages?

The answer is not straightforward. What is appropriate to argue when talking about the free speech and free expression of an adult does not apply when talking about the free expression of a seven-year-old. But on balance, I think we need to recognise that there are limits to how rigorously social media can or should be policed. For me, the answer is moderation that can rise to the challenge of bringing appropriate adult authority into the digital sphere while allowing – and trusting – young people to push at boundaries in online communities as they will push at boundaries offline. This is where we as adults need to be brave and perhaps a little grown-up ourselves. We need to recognise that children and young people make mistakes and that we will not like everything they say or do online, in much the same way our own parents probably would not have liked everything we said or did in the more private spaces of our youth. What is really important here is that as a society we help young people find their own way through social-media minefields.

And this is where trust is important. I have sometimes been at discussions where shocking cases of abuse on social media have come to dominate and a minority of appalling behaviour has stood for the whole. Young people are described as almost innately predisposed to abuse, bully and persecute each other. We know – particularly those who have chosen to work with children in the media – that this is not the truth of the matter. Children can be naughty. Teens can be a pain. But they are on the whole full of good stuff.

Rather than panic about peer pressure, perhaps we need to trust it more – creatively, emotionally – and celebrate it online and offline. Behind the headlines about social media, the kids themselves seem to be saying they are alright. According to a Common Sense Media survey, 52 per cent of 13- to 17-year-olds said that social media had helped their relationships with friends compared to four per cent who said social media had negatively affected their friendships.

This does not mean we ignore those shocking, tragic cases or allow children to say or do as they please in a digital environment. But we should also remember what is positive about children’s engagement with social media.

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