The views expressed by the author of this article are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organisation.
We recently saw the release of the latest national report focussed on young people and social media. “Life in Likes”, a report published by the Children’s Commissioner summarises a research study looking into social media use amongst 8 – 12 year olds. The full report can be found here. In this blog I thought it would be useful to make a few observations and relate it to my work in Cornwall.
The report covers some of the old territory, but then takes the debate into a much more promising space by looking at the impact the online world is having on young people’s emotional health and wellbeing. The report also champions a focus on younger age groups and the all-important transition process. This shift in focus is long overdue and is very much welcomed.
The Headstart programme
The HeadStart Kernow Programme, funded by the Big Lottery Fund, led by Cornwall Council and supported by SWGfL and other partners, has instigated a 5-year qualitative research programme to look at this very issue. The study will include a longitudinal element starting with children in Year 5, as well as significant broader thematic based research. Fieldwork will be largely qualitative and will begin this term, continuing for the next 5 years.
My research study is based upon a simple question:
- “Is the Social and Emotional Development of young people under threat from the online world?”
This simple question hides real complexity. HeadStart has made a commitment to work with professionals, young people and families to develop our understanding of these issues and to help shape solutions. Unlike many other research programmes, my work will go to great lengths to ensure we look at this issue through the eyes of young people.
The discussion of online safety and risk-taking behaviour, whilst important, has now been overtaken by the need to understand how the online world is fundamentally changing the way young people develop socially and emotionally
‘Life in Likes’ clearly articulates a sentiment we have heard time and time again over the past few months. “Young People are well trained in online safety and potential dangers such as grooming and predation. They are less aware of how to protect themselves from other online situations that can affect mood and emotions”.
The discussion of online safety and risk-taking behaviour, whilst important, has now been overtaken by the need to understand how the online world is fundamentally changing the way young people develop socially and emotionally. We are not ignoring the aforementioned issues but there is now an even bigger elephant in the room.
I regularly talk to young people and professionals about the online world. However, we rarely talk about technology per se. The technology industry, and indeed legislation no doubt need a place at the table, but ultimately, this is about human behaviours. This is a social challenge that will require social solutions.
When reading ‘Life in Likes’, I couldn’t help but reflect on the proposals within the context of Daniel Goleman’s work. Goleman, a well-known psychologist, introduced the concept of emotional intelligence to the world in the mid 1990s. Goleman introduced a simple model that in essence focuses upon how you manage yourself and your relationships. We have used this model extensively to shape our work in Cornwall. ‘Life in Likes’ confirms this approach.
Goleman’s model presents 4 elements of social and emotional intelligence, Self-Awareness, Self-Management, Social Awareness and Relationship Management. We have used this model because it recognises the importance of the individual and their relationship with others. The model also focuses upon understanding and managing emotions. We believe this is the foundation of online wellbeing and is undoubtedly a core element of the wider HeadStart Programme.
In many ways, expecting young people to master this is hypocritical given the behaviour displayed by adults using social media. Expecting young people to critically evaluate every online transaction, every piece of content is a big ask, particularly when adults are often the worst offenders. Young people learn by modelling observed behaviour… think on this point the next time you share personal content or content identifying others.
Safety vs Literacy
The point is that (young people) are using social media, and so are their friends, whether we like it or not. We therefore have a responsibility to help them navigate this online world in an emotionally intelligent way
Having worked with a number of schools recently, there is still an underlying ethos of “safety”. I recently heard a teacher proudly announce, “the kids hate me because I restrict their access to the internet and wi-fi”. I appreciate the need for schools to cover their own backs and avoid anything happening on their shift. However, this ignores one of the key concepts discussed in ‘Life in Likes’, digital literacy.
As soon as young people leave the school grounds, they have a 4G connection in their pocket. I have also heard “They are only 11, they shouldn’t even be on social media”. The point is that they are using social media, and so are their friends, whether we like it or not. We therefore have a responsibility to help them navigate this online world in an emotionally intelligent way.
Resilience is at the heart of the HeadStart Programme and my work. “Promoting resilience is not about eliminating risk factors, successfully managing risk is a resilience factor in its own right” Newman 2002. We need to be able to flirt with risk in order to develop resilience.
As a child I was given strategies to help me navigate my way through the perils of rusty metal and charging livestock. I now need to support my daughter navigate the perils of Snapchat, Instagram and constant connection
My generation was brought up in a society where risky play was recognised and embraced. As a result, my friends and I became resilient and able to manage risk in a dynamic way. By the way, we didn’t know this, we were just playing by the river and jumping bikes over anything we could find. It was a cool thing to do. For our parents, they knew there was an element of assessed risk, but back then, “risk” didn’t equal “danger”. It was seen for what it was, something they needed to help us navigate and something we had to learn to deal with.
In many ways, it is no different in an online situation. As a child I was given strategies to help me navigate my way through the perils of rusty metal and charging livestock. I now need to support my daughter navigate the perils of Snapchat, Instagram and constant connection. We need to do the same for our young people as our parents did for us, only in a different context.
According to UKCCIS, resilience is developed when given the opportunity to engage with ‘appropriate’ opportunities and challenges rather than the introduction of safety and avoidance measures. Resilience is learnt through experience, not by being taught. It is our role to ensure every young person has a trusted adult with whom they can discuss these issues, reflect on their options. This is about growing self-control, recognising what is harmful and responding appropriately.
The Future for Education
‘Life in Likes’ has done a good job in articulating a future direction. We now need to find ways of mainstreaming, embedding and integrating social development skills into education and parenting. If we see online as something separate, we create a raft of additional work for ourselves. I prefer to reflect on the everyday social skills we should already be teaching young people and opening a discussion about how this plays out online.
No doubt this will be shoe-horned into an already overcrowded PSHE / RSE curriculum. I challenge all of us to be a little more creative. There are numerous opportunities every day and in every subject to consider these issues. These are social skills and social behaviours and we have been dealing with those for decades. The only difference is that it is taking place in an online environment. Have confidence that you do know many of the answers because you know the way people think, feel and behave.
And if you do have any online safety concerns, the Professionals Online Safety Helpline is a fantastic service for all members of the children's workforce in the UK.
Over the next 5 years I will be carrying out in-depth fieldwork and analysis to fully understand these issues from the perspective of young people, professionals and families. Working with a wide range of partners, including many education settings. Not only will I conduct longitudinal work, I will also undertake in-depth research on a wide range of specific issues such as normalisation, legitimisation and issues such as empathy.
In summary, I welcome this report and recognise the vast majority of issues it covers. I am also extremely encouraged to see that the work underway in Cornwall is addressing the gaps highlighted by the report. It gives me great confidence that we are focussing our efforts in the right places and our approach is robust.
If you wish to find out more about either HeadStart Kernow or more specifically the Online Wellbeing Research Programme, please contact us.