Young people and social networking services - not another moral panic

A new UK-focussed report published by Childnet International aims to support teachers and lecturers who wish to explore the use of social networking services by young people. In this guest post, Josie Fraser, one of the report's authors, explains more.
Written by Steve O'Hear, Contributor on

A new UK-focussed report published by Childnet International aims to support teachers and lecturers who wish to explore the use of social networking services by young people. In this guest post, Josie Fraser, the report's author, explains more.

That social networking services have and are continuing to reconfigure the online landscape will come as no surprise to ZDNet readers. Social networking services have become increasingly important to how many children and young people spend and organise their social time, often replacing that previously spent in front of the television. Increasingly, tools and practices that may have been treated with suspicion or seen as a waste of time by schools and local authorities – and subsequently banned or ignored - are being explored within education.

Cyberbullying and e-safety concerns have primarily driven the need for adults with a responsibility of care to get savvy about services, but the potential positive impacts of social media are beginning to sink in. Signaling a more balanced approach which looks beyond the frequent moral-panic inducing stories is Childnet International's new report, Young People and Social Networking Services, commissioned by Becta, the UK Government's lead agency for information and communications technology (ICT) in education. Social networking services provide a range of potential formal and informal educational opportunities for young people. While educational technologists and enthusiastic teaching staff have been quick to understand the potential benefits, as well as the risks, in using all kinds of social software in and out of the classroom, e-safety and digital literacy is still an emerging area, with blocking and filtering practices within school networks sometimes preventing not only staff development and awareness, but in dealing effectively and quickly with risky or bullying behaviour.

Childnet’s report outlines some of the potential benefits of using a range of services, and looks at how they can provide an accessible and powerful platform for developing young people’s voices, and an easy way to taking part in local and international communities and activities. The report looks at the benefits of services which enable young people to become content creators, managers and distributors, as well as pointing out the data management and digital rights issues that these raise.

Social networking services are broadly defined within the paper and include those that are profile focused (Bebo, MySpace, Facebook), content focused sites (YouTube, Flickr, last.fm), virtual worlds, mobile sites, and microblogging. All these sites offer users the opportunity to create a profile of sorts, and to make connections with other users. They all also fundamentally rely on active participation –making, uploading, writing, commenting, reviewing and organising. These are all practices that can support creativity, collaboration and teamwork – and critically, skills and processes that are going to help prepare young people for the adult world. Exploring online communities and worlds can help develop key, real world skills.

Online spaces are social spaces and social networking services offer similar opportunities to offline social spaces to young people – places to be with friends or to explore alone, building independence and developing the skills they need to recognise and manage risk, to learn to judge and evaluate situations and to deal effectively with a world that can sometimes be dangerous or hostile. However, such skills can’t be built in isolation, and are more likely to develop if supported.

The report looks at some of the issues preventing educators from exploring social networking services – these include levels of educators’ confidence and experience, and on-site blocking and filtering policies. The lack of a sensible risk management approach to working with students online is also drawn attention to.

The report also outlines some of the hazards of using social networking services, not all of which are exclusive to young people. Harmful and potentially illegal content and activities are reviewed, including impersonation and identity theft, grooming, and cyberbullying.

Being able to manage data – especially personal information - online is a new key skill, but many young people's online interaction can be characterised by what researchers have called "imagined communities". This belief that the information, pictures and content that you publicly post is mysteriously visible only to yourself and to people you would chose to have access to it. Many people are just not considering that public data can be searched and that it remains accessible for a long time. The increasing use of universities, employers, and more recently the police, to look for information about individuals on social networks needs to be more widely understood and the potentially far reaching impact needs to be recognised. Data management and privacy issues have become key digital literacy and e-safety areas – of course these aren’t confined to social networking services, but these are the contexts within which we are talking to our friends and the world – and posting pictures - about what it was we got up to last night.

Digital literacy support is also useful when it comes to other risks that young people might be exposed to online. The impact of types of cyberbullying can sometimes be underestimated or misunderstood by young people. Schools have a responsibility to ensure that young people understand how some activities can be hurtful to others, and that young people know how to look after themselves online. We wouldn’t let a child go off on their own to a park or town centre without fist making sure that they knew how to keep themselves safe and how to respond to danger. Many adults seem to believe that the current generation has been born with an innate ability to fend for themselves online. While they may pick up how to access services quickly, safe and acceptable behaviour is still something children need support and encouragement with – offline or on.

The report aims to bring together the wide range of information about where education currently stands in regard to social networking services. In addition to looking at the advantages and dangers of using social networking services, the report spends some time on reviewing what social networking services are – recognising that many of its audience will not have a clear overview and understanding of this rapidly developing field. Several major service providers also supported the report – including Bebo, Facebook, Google and Yahoo! to help produce an evaluation chart to equip schools with a way to work out the differences between services, and to help them both understand and use services appropriately. There is also an ideas and examples section that highlights examples of how services are currently being used within education.

As well as contributing to an understanding of current practice, the report aims to bring Local Authorities and school leaders up to speed so that they can consider current policies and practices and take the next step. Since so many of our children, young people, teachers and parents are already using social networking services in one form or another, we need to be asking (at least) two new questions: how can we ensure the education and support we provide is relevant to problems they might come across within these environments, and how can we utilise or engage with services in safe, creative, and effective ways?

Josie Fraser is a freelance Social and Educational Technologist, who focuses on the use of technology for community engagement and learning. She previously worked with Childnet International delivering the UK Governments' Cyberbullying Guidance for schools, and led the Young People and Social Networking project. Josie blogs over at SocialTech and you an follow her on Twitter.

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