This could expand into a dissertation topic, but I want to keep it short. I decided to engage with the social media (SM) revolution a couple of years ago. I live in a remote location, and it’s a great way of sharing photos of where I am and what I’m doing with family and friends. There have been many positives – linking up with old friends from college; networking with people and groups who share some of my passions; disseminating information about missing people, or particular causes. There are the negatives too – a whole host of them, and too many to list here- quite apart from the potential to waste time when we could be doing other things; better things, like meeting our friends, or talking to them on the phone, or may be even writing them a letter…… (OK, well maybe sending them an email then!)
A few months ago a young girl left her teddy bear on an East Coast line train. Unless it was handed into lost property, and her guardians thought to contact them, there would have been no way that said girl and teddy bear would ever have been united in the past. Twitter and Facebook made the reunion possible. It’s a heart-warming story, and although trivial in the grand scheme of things, it does highlight the fact that SM can be a powerful tool for good. It’s certainly enabled mass campaigning, and information sharing in a way which would have been difficult for minority groups and charities ,without big budgets, to engage in otherwise. Of course there’s plenty of disinformation about, and naysayers will always be able to counter any positives with the corresponding negatives, but that doesn’t invalidate the point.
I live in an isolated hamlet. It’s not easy to connect with people without time and often considerable expense. For people who have mental health issues, connecting with on-line communities can be a valuable way to engage socially, albeit ‘virtually’. There’s still research to be done in this area, but there’s no doubt that this sort of on-line connectivity can reduce isolation for some of our most vulnerable people. It can also be a torment and a torture.
Our young people too, can be vulnerable, and very at risk from those who would cause them harm. There are plenty of apocryphal tales of young girls meeting boys on-line who turn out to be older men, grooming them with ill intent. We need to teach our young people the skills to avoid these scenarios, and as adults we need to be more engaged.
Bullying, and sometimes associated suicide, has been a worrying trend in on-line communities, but it is also a worrying trend across the country in general. In Scotland initiatives have been put in place to reduce the incidence of suicide, particularly in young men, because the numbers are so high. When I was working in advocacy, over a decade ago, before the real advent of on line chat rooms and social networks, bullying was causing the deaths of young people then. SM can amplify the effect and increase copycat trends, as was seen in Wales a few years ago, but SM itself is not the cause of suicide, although it can give the bullies an easier target.
As a society we need to try and grasp what’s going on. Why our young people are feeling so hopeless and worthless that such ‘virtual’ bullying can have such a powerful impact. There are lots of things going on here, and shutting down Facebook or Bebo (it’s coming back apparently) or the other 100 or so social networking websites will not solve the problems our communities are facing, any more than shutting down schools playgrounds or youth clubs will.
Powerful tools can always be harnessed for good or for bad. It’s up to those of us who are aware, and who care, to remember that whilst SM can be a fun, controllable pass-time, and a good way of keeping in touch for most, for vulnerable people it can be a scary predatory world.
Rather than banning your children from using SM networks, teach them how to use it effectively, so that their privacy is protected and they know how to stay safe. Get them to keep their circles manageable, and to ‘un-friend’ anyone who is threatening or abusive; encourage them to think before they post. These sorts of guidelines are equally food for thought for anyone, and would avoid a lot of the damaging remarks and hurtful comments that are made on a daily basis. Once it’s posted it’s hard to ‘take it back’, but you can encourage young people to remove old posts and photos from their timeline that could be damaging to themselves, or to others.
If you work with vulnerable young people or adults, with mental health issues, or learning disability, or even older people who are lonely, rather than being discouraging and restrictive, encourage them to use SM responsibly, and to protect themselves by not giving out personal contact details. If you have vulnerable people in your friends list, keep an eye out for them. We won’t ever eliminate the risks altogether, but with a bit of awareness and more considerate practice, we can reduce some of the risks for the most vulnerable in our communities. SM can be effective at reducing social isolation and connecting people who might otherwise find it hard to be in touch, but it can also cause a lot of damage. Let’s remember that SM is just a tool, and like all tools it can be used for good or ill.