By Madeleine Andrew-Gee
Social Connectedness Fellow
Social media has become a part of day-to-day life and a key tool of communication. Consider that 75 percent of all American teenagers have actively participated on a social media site and 80 percent own a smartphone.[i] Not only are youth on social media sites, they can access them right in the palm of their hand. It comes as no surprise then that teenagers are the largest and most frequent users of social networking sites, such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Therefore, when we discuss the pros and cons of social media use, we cannot overlook its effects on youth.
But while the risk of cyber-bullying, sexual predators and Internet addiction has been explored at length by experts and commentators, the extensive and supportive networks that these sites can create — especially for disenfranchised youth — are often overlooked. Indeed, social media should not be demonized as an objectively negative force for youth. While acknowledging the risks that sharing on the Internet can entail, social media should also be recognized as the community building tool that it is for many of our most isolated youth.
For disenfranchised youth, especially youth who are physically isolated from cities where supportive communities and services may be found, these Internet networks can be life changing — and even life-saving. For example, a study done by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network found that 60 percent of LGBT youth feel safer talking about their lives and sexuality on the Internet and find cyber communities more supportive than the physical communities they live in. One such community is maintained by The Trevor Project, which works to prevent LGBTQ suicide through an online support center and discussion space. By connecting LBGTQ youth in a safe and monitored environment, this online community could very well be saving lives.
Other isolated groups are also finding information and support through online communities. Gurls Talk is an online platform that provides a space for girls and young women from diverse backgrounds to address issues that they find difficult to speak about. As the website explains, “Gurls Talk is a movement that strives to create a platform where girls can openly share their experiences and feelings in a safe and trusting environment”.
This is not to suggest that there are no legitimate concerns over the way that social media is used by youth. For example, cyberbullying is one of the most common risks associated with access to social networks. Of the teens who use social media, 39 percent of them reported having experienced bullying, often in the form of threatening messages or the sharing of private messages without their consent. The added menace of cyberbullying is its anonymous nature; it is easier to identify someone who pushes a youth on a playground than it is to find the bully who is sending their victim anonymous messages. As cyberbullying has become recognized as a persistent issue for teens, more attention has been paid to mitigating the risk of online harassment. Educational programs, for both parents and youth, on the ways to identify and deal with this kind of bullying are on the rise.
Nevertheless, it is imperative that these risks do not overshadow the online networks that have emerged to support and inform youth. In the book, Its Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, Danah Boyd tries to combat the fear-mongering and stereotypes that accompany discussions of youth and social media. Too often we hear the concerns of parents and teachers — who worry about bullying and privacy — without listening to the needs and wishes of the teens themselves, “as they try and find themselves in a networked world.”[ii] As Boyd argues, youth have never been so engaged and able to access information on a broad range of topics, from politics to factors that shape identity and sexuality.[iii] This means that youth communities, such as queer youth, have more access to information and educational networks that would have been out of reach for them pre-Internet.
While there are certainly risks associated with unlimited access to anonymous Internet resources, the important work being done to connect and support youth through Internet networks — especially disenfranchised youth — must be highlighted and encouraged.
[i] Boyd, Danah. It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens.,2014. Print. 3.
[ii] Boyd, Danah. It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens.,2014. Print. Xi.
[iii] Boyd, Danah. It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens.,2014. Print. Xi.