As the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic has plunged schools into the topical world of online education, it has prompted me to ponder what this transition to a largely technological way of life could mean for young people. From teaching and learning to social interaction and collaboration, the online sphere seeps into almost every inch of our daily lives, especially for youths. This inspired me reflect on the pages of my doctoral thesis, ‘Social Networking and Young People: Privileging Student Voice,’ which surveyed the experience of students within the digital sphere, with specific focus on Social Networking Sites (SNS). As the online world continues to evolve and expand, how are young people; our children, navigating, interacting, and behaving within this empowering yet unpredictable realm?
As an educator with over 30 years of teaching experience, I have seen changes in the nature and use of technology by young people both within the classroom and at home. The biggest change is that technology has transitioned from a utensil to gather and present information, to a mechanism for socialising and collaboration. In today’s digital environment, to fit in is to be constantly connected, and young people grow up with this convenience yet pressure of being constantly accessible.
Findings from my research detailed most students found constant connection to be the predominant positive aspect of SNS. Students also reported their online interactions were mostly of positive nature and the influence of SNS on the social and learning environments in and out of school was also positive. It comes as no surprise that young people are relishing the digital sphere and reaping the many benefits of its complex capabilities. Current SNS have the capability to forge communities, facilitate supportive relationships and improve educational outcomes.
With constant social connectivity online, comes the construction of identity and the sense of belonging and self-esteem which young people build through digital relationships. It ties into the way in which young people use the online environment to develop and establish their persona, to feed the relentless ‘need to be seen’ facilitated by this constant connection. My research found a strong sense of identity online and offline is key to establishing resilience within young people. While this can be fostered through SNS, the internet can be a harsh and unforgiving place to forge identity, especially for developing young people. It is a stage on which validation and acceptance are sought from peers, and by comparing oneself to potentially unrealistic versions of reality. When combined with budding maturity levels and a heightened sense of anonymity, it can lead to greater risk taking and potentially poor decision making.
The internet can also be a daunting place for young people, who may lack experience and confidence. Findings from my research deemed privacy to be the main concern of students, parents, and teachers alike in relation to SNS. Alongside this concern, was cyber-bullying, fights with friends, technical difficulties, hacking of accounts, fake identities, loss of innocence and the accessing of inappropriate material. It reinforced the age-old question; how can we keep young people safe online? While there are undoubtedly infinite answers, communication and education proved to be the resounding solutions within my study. Eliciting student voice is necessary to develop policy and guidance to support young people as they develop their sense of identity and resilience online, thus enabling them to successfully navigate the world in which they live.
Listening and communicating with young people, is the key to bridging the digital divide and forging better solutions for best practice in future. The purpose of my research was to give young people a voice, to tell us about their experiences with SNS and outline their preferences, concerns, and influences, to formulate recommendations for future programs and policies. So, as we continue to power forward in education and socialisation online, let’s listen to the digital natives; young people, about their experiences, to empower each other and forge greater understanding about the digital world we live in.
Navigating the abundance of information out there about how best to empower young people in the digital sphere can be overwhelming. Reflecting on my research and personal experience, I’ve crafted eight tips for parents to promote healthy boundaries and relationships with technology and your child.
- Set clear boundaries for acceptable use. Younger children should have greater restrictions, which can be relaxed over time as maturity develops.
- In terms of app use, follow the recommended minimum age and don’t be afraid to extend the minimum age depending on the social maturity of your child.
- Turn all devices off at bedtime, as a sleep-time digital detox is beneficial for overall wellbeing. Try to charge devices in a central location away from bedrooms, to stop the temptation to constantly check for updates.
- Encourage involvement in non-screen activities. This will limit the opportunity for too much screen time and reinforce social connections.
- Lead by example. How you interact with your devices will demonstrate a clear message to your children, so be a good role model.
- Talk to your children regularly about their socials, so that it becomes a part of normal discussion. Girls especially, can become very private about their socials out of fear of having their device confiscated.
- Be a ‘friend.’ Having access to your child’s socials is a great protective factor for cyber bullying and preventing inappropriate content or discussions from being shared. It also allows young people to navigate peer pressure as they can use this as an excuse not to get involved.
- It is okay to say no. You should always be the one with the final say, as you have the experience and maturity that your child does not. While it’s not always easy to say no, it’s important for parents to have control of what is acceptable.
In closing, the use of mobile devices and online social interaction is a normal part of how we live, and it is here to stay. As technologies continue to develop and advance, it is crucial that we work together to help our young people learn to manage the challenges they face and flourish in the digital world. For more information on internet safety and young people, please click here.
Dr Marie Perry