There’s no denying that social media can be a force for good for tweens and teens. Here are some of the very real benefits of social media for young people.
The potential and pitfalls of social media use among minors are well known. Cyberbullying, sexting, and predation, sometimes leading to tragic outcomes, are among the possible dangers that can arise when young people use platforms such as Facebook and Snapchat.
However, there’s no denying that social media can be a force for good for tweens and teens. Here are some of the very real benefits of social media for young people.
After the mass shooting at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school earlier this year, students triggered a gun-control movement that garnered support around the globe. Their most powerful weapons against ardent adult gun lobbyists? Instagram and Twitter.
Through tweets and posts, the youth took control of the narrative—and have kept their campaign going strong long after the uncomfortable new normal began to set in.
“After this highly atrocious event, they harnessed social media to make their voices heard,” says Vancouver social media educator Jesse Miller, founder of Mediated Reality. “There are so many negative stories that get front-page headlines about social media that we forget there is a positive piece. There are these free, self-created soapboxes where children can stand and tell their story.”
Consider the experience of Erinne Paisley. The Victoria native gained notoriety for her 2015 high-school grad dress. Made out of old math sheets, the outfit was emblazoned with the words “I’ve received my education. Not every woman has that right. Malala.org”—raising awareness of the fund that advocates for girls’ education. It went viral.
With her newfound audience, Paisley went on to create a blog called Pop Activism. There, she talks openly about causes she believes in and helps young people make the world a better place using successful hashtag campaigns, viral videos, and other social media strategies.
Now studying at the University of Toronto, Paisley recalls the moment when she first realized that the online universe could benefit her in real life. Help came in the form of vlogs by Zoe Elizabeth Sugg, a UK “influencer” who is better known as Zoella.
“Zoella’s vlogs are usually about fashion and beauty, but when I was just going into high school she made a series of videos about her own experiences with generalized anxiety disorder,” Paisley says. “At the time, I was struggling a lot with this myself and figuring out coping mechanisms. Watching someone talk so openly about their own experiences made me feel not ashamed to talk about what I was going through.
“I viewed Zoella’s YouTube videos at a very important stage in my own development,” she adds. “To this day, being exposed to them has helped me be open about my own mental health struggles and given me a better ability to support others.”
Sharing struggles, inspiring others
There are multiple examples of adolescents using social media as a positive tool. Take Hailey Wait, an 18-year-old artist from Colorado. She goes by the name pigss on Instagram, happens to have cystic acne, and has shown the world that pimples are no reason to hide.
The first time she posted a photo of herself without any makeup, she wrote, “Reminder that acne doesn’t make you ugly; a heart full of hate does.” Her account was flooded with comments from grateful, supportive, and admiring followers.
“If you can remember being a kid and thinking you were the only one in class with a pimple, you know that kids can feel they’re alone,” Miller says. “With a photo like this, they find they’re not alone. They find inspiration.”
Strengthened friendships and a sense of identity
Social media allows youth to connect with like-minded people they would never have met otherwise, something that Barry MacDonald sees in his work as a registered clinical counsellor and founder of MentoringBoys.com. He says online communities can help adolescents develop their sense of identity.
“Countless youth have described to me how their friendships have been strengthened through online engagement,” MacDonald says. “Some youth even have friends they deem closest whom they haven’t yet met face-to-face. Youth struggling with depression or anxiety also tell me they feel more socially connected and feel a stronger sense of belonging through their social media engagement.”
Young people are also embracing the way social media fuels the creative process. It’s never been easier to create and share photos and videos, for instance.
“I’m often amazed at the creativity some kids have when sharing videos on YouTube,” says Nancy Smith, a Calgary-based social media educator and founder of Social Citizens. “This ability to create and edit content and be familiar with the process is a skill I think most adults would love to have.
“I know that in my marketing profession, many businesses pay lots of money to outsource these skills to complete projects,” she notes. “Our kids are gaining skills that may be very helpful in a future job market.”
A much-needed outlet
As a mom and Grade 7 teacher based in Vancouver, Jillian Lee sees many ways social media can benefit youth. What stands out for her is how it offers quiet or shy kids with an outlet to express themselves.
“Social media allows them to come out of their shell a little bit,” Lee says. “That distance provides a layer of protection, and they can open up a bit. Some kids freeze when they’re giving a 15-second book review but can write creatively for pages and pages. It’s very different when they’re on social media, and you can see this other side of them.”
The global village at your fingertips
Vancouver’s Andrea Skene, who has two boys, aged 11 and 14, admits that her family has experienced conflict when it comes to screen time. However, there’s no denying some of the advantages of interacting with the world online.
“Coming from England, all of my family and long-time friends are over there, and there’s an eight-hour time difference, which makes it difficult to stay in touch,” Skene says. “I absolutely love getting to see everything that’s going on in their lives, and our kids have the same opportunities. They have relatives they keep in touch with. It makes the world so much smaller.”
As a parent, step-parent, blogger, and public relations and marketing professional who offers social media training, Leeann Froese is constantly talking to her 13-year-old son about safe use of the internet. At home, there are rules, expectations, and open dialogue.
She, too, sees multiple benefits of being social. Through gaming, for example, her son met a friend in the US. Both families have connected with each other via FaceTime; friendships have formed. “It’s a modern-day version of a pen pal,” Froese says.
She says social media is a vital tool for youth to make plans and stay in touch with friends.
“I have always thought it’s great for connecting people,” she says. “It really cements the social connection.”
Tips for safe and healthy social media use
Model the kind of behaviour you expect of your child
Jesse Miller calls it “sharenting”: parents who overshare online. Think about how often you’re posting to social media and what kind of photos you’re uploading and of whom. Did the people in those pictures give permission for you to post a photo of them?
“Parents need to reflect on asking for digital consent,” Miller says. “With sharenting, kids believe they can take photos of anything and post it.”
Vet social connections with your child
It’s becoming more common for youth to play online games with people from other parts of the world. Screen “strangers” together: via FaceTime, meet the other players and their parents too. When it comes to potential predators, avoid making gender-based assumptions; females as well as males can act as facilitators.
Help your child understand that things can’t be unseen
“I want my son to always take care where he clicks; I don’t want him to see something traumatizing,” Leann Froese says. “We do look at his [web page] history. The rule is we get full access to it. If something is a little iffy, we’ll talk about it.”
Keep devices out of kids’ bedrooms
Having them in their rooms can interfere with sleep because of the temptation to use them long after everyone else in the house has gone to bed, according to social media educator Nancy Smith.
Talk to your kids about keeping private things private
Remind kids how far information can spread and how long it can last. Even information on “temporary” sites such as Snapchat is not temporary—screenshots can always be taken.
Be mindful of GPS-enabled devices
Geotags share the location where a photo or video was taken. Make sure these features are turned off.
|Media Smarts||mediasmarts.ca/parents||Canada’s Centre for Digital and Media Literacy, a not-for-profit charitable organization|
|Common Sense Media||commonsensemedia.org||helps families make smart media decisions|
|Caring for Kids||caringforkids.cps.ca/handouts/social_media||the website of the Canadian Paediatric Society|