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Under the influence: how harmful is social media to children and young people?

Insights Perspective


 

Violette Gadenne, Research Lead | Patrick Olajide, Analyst


Thursday 15 June 2023


This image was created using AI programme Craiyon


Introduction


When it comes to the safety of children and young people online, many – including children and young people themselves – view social media as a malevolent beast, exacerbating online and offline risk.


That perception was highlighted in research Crest Advisory carried out in 2022 on the relationship between social media and youth violence [1]. It found that parents, children and those working with them, such as teachers and social workers, were increasingly concerned that what young people are exposed to online affects them offline.


Another study, published last November in partnership between Crest and the Youth Endowment Fund (YEF), examined the issue in more detail [2]. It involved a national youth survey, focusing on violence and vulnerability, of over 2,000 young people across England and Wales. It found that in a 12-month period, 55 per cent of those surveyed had witnessed violence on social media, and 65 per cent had changed their behaviour to keep themselves safe from violence.


We have since conducted additional analysis, looking at whether these two factors - witnessing violence on social media and feelings of safety - might be linked. We found that being exposed to violent content online did not significantly affect children’s perceptions of violence or how safe they personally felt. However, children who’d been exposed to sexually violent content specifically were more likely to think violent crime was going up and were more likely to skip school due to feeling unsafe.


In this article, we outline our findings in more detail and set out Crest’s plans for future research. We also make a key recommendation that policymakers and practitioners work together with young people to develop safeguarding solutions.


Social media: a double edged sword?


The YEF national youth survey suggested that 79 per cent of those who took part thought that social media was a factor behind acts of violence committed by young people in their area, with 51 per cent saying it was a major or the most important factor.


However, 23 per cent of children who had witnessed, or been a victim of, a violent crime offline reported spending more time online because they were worried about violence. This illustrates the major challenge facing policymakers, practitioners and young people: how to strike a balance between treating social media as a place of sanctuary and a place of risk. For those children and young people concerned by or at risk of violence, the content posted on these platforms may be having no impact at all - or it could be placing them at further risk, making them feel less safe.


Our analysis tries to answer the crucial question: do we understand the impact of social media content on young people’s perceptions and behaviour offline?


What is the dark side of social media?


There are many types of potentially harmful social media content. To measure these, the survey provided young people with a list of options on forms of content available online and asked which they had seen [3]. We then grouped responses into three categories: violent; drugs-related; and sexually violent content. The response options and how they were then grouped are shown in the diagram, below. [4]



The survey also asked young people about:

  • Their perceptions of crime

  • Changes in behaviour related to feeling unsafe [5]


This gave us the data we needed to conduct a regression analysis, to see if young people’s perceptions and feelings of safety were linked to what they saw online. We found that young people experience ‘harms’ from different types of online content differently.


Violent content does not appear to affect perceptions of crime and safety


We saw no significant difference in young people’s perceptions when they had witnessed violent content online. This means that young people who had viewed content involving weapons, fights or threats were no more likely than other young people to think that violent crime had gone up or down. They also were no more likely to have skipped school as a result of feeling unsafe.


Drugs-related content appears to have an impact on perceptions of crime - but not of safety


We did see a significant difference in the perceptions of young people who had witnessed drugs-related content online. Young people who had viewed content showing other young people using or promoting illegal drugs were more likely to think that violent crime had increased or stayed the same than those who had not. But this did not translate to changes in how safe they felt. They were no more or less likely than other young people to take steps to protect themselves.


Violent sexual content could affect perceptions of crime and safety


However, exposure to violent sexual content online significantly affected young people’s perceptions of violent crime and their own personal feelings of safety. Young people who had seen content that was sexually violent or threatening were 1.4 times more likely than others in their age group to think that violent crime was increasing (or had stayed the same). They were also 2.4 times more likely to skip school because they felt unsafe at school or on their journey. This shows the real-life consequences of young people’s exposure to content online - in that it might affect, for example, their attendance at school and how safe they feel there.



But is it all about social media?


Our findings suggest that certain types of social media content have an impact on young people’s perceptions and behaviours. The results are statistically significant - but it’s important to note that social media plays only a small role in how safe young people feel [6]. Other factors play a part as well.


Personal characteristics, such as gender and ethnicity, contribute to shaping young people’s perceptions

Girls were more likely than boys to think violent crime was increasing or had stayed the same and were more likely to skip school due to feeling unsafe. We also found that young White people were less likely to think crime had gone up than young people from other ethnic backgrounds, although we found no differences in feelings of safety between these groups. This might be as a result of certain groups being more exposed to crime due to their personal characteristics.


Being a victim of a crime also changes young people’s perceptions and behaviour

Perhaps unsurprisingly, young people who had been the victim of a crime were more likely to think that crime had gone up. They were more likely to have skipped school, as a result of feeling unsafe. Again, it suggests that exposure to crime can explain a large part of young people’s perceptions and behaviour.


Perceptions of crime influence changes in behaviour

Finally, we saw a relationship between young people’s perceptions of crime and the actions that they took to protect themselves. Young people who thought violent crime was going up (or had stayed the same) were significantly more likely to take steps to protect themselves, including by travelling in groups, skipping social events, or even – in extreme cases – carrying a weapon.

What should we be doing about it?


Our findings show that children and young people see and experience different types of harmful content on social media differently. So, when developing ways to keep young people safe from online harms, we need to consider the different ‘harms’ from different types of content; we can’t fit all harmful content into one category.


Debate on this subject, particularly relating to the Online Safety Bill, centres on the responsibility of social media platforms to regulate content that children and young people have access to. If passed, the Bill would place responsibilities on platform providers to prevent children from accessing harmful and age-inappropriate content, and ensure the risks posed to children on the largest social media platforms are more transparent [7].


But during these discussions the views of children and young people are often overlooked, especially when it comes to understanding what online content is harmful and how it affects them. We should also be focusing on the types of content children and young people have access to online and the implications for content assessed as harmful but legal - such as violent pornographic material.


It is also important to take into account how young people’s personal experiences and circumstances contribute to their feelings of safety. A true contextual safeguarding [8] approach, which recognises the full range of online and offline environments and experiences influencing young people, is needed. To develop solutions to the problem we need to involve young people themselves to get a better understanding of the risks that they face.


That is particularly relevant given the introduction of the new Serious Violence Duty [9]. The Duty places a legal requirement on the police, local authorities, the probation service and other agencies to work together to tackle serious violence in their local area. The Duty also highlights that “it is essential that frontline professionals recognise the specific needs and vulnerability of children and young people”, and that young people “impacted by criminal exploitation and engaging in serious violence are seen as victims and are safeguarded and supported” [10]. The Duty represents an opportunity to get it right, by involving young people in the discussion, and considering how they would like to be kept safe.


So, is social media evil or not?


When talking about social media platforms and the impact of harmful social media content there’s a risk of descending into a moral panic. Although continually evolving technologies, platforms and content create real challenges when trying to safeguard the next generation, for many young people the online world represents a safe haven - where they feel protected from harm offline.


It would be impossible to completely shield young people from the online world - and the good, the bad and the ugly that it contains. We can, however, include young people in the conversation about finding a feasible solution. That means taking steps to protect them where we can and empower them to protect themselves where we cannot.


Our findings show that there’s a clear and vital need to continue research in this area. With further research, Crest is looking to build a deeper understanding of the problem, including:


  1. Researching who is affected by harmful online content and if this extends to the wider population

  2. Further exploring what online content is harmful and how children and young people come into contact with it.

  3. Understanding why some harmful online content can affect children and young people’s attitudes and behaviour in the offline world.


Please get in touch with violette.gadenne@crestadvisory.com or patrick.olajide@crestadvisory.com if you would like to get involved.



The views expressed in this article are those of Crest Advisory and do not represent the views of the Youth Endowment Fund, which funded the original survey.


 

Footnotes




[3] Full Question - Have you ever seen content on social media in the form of messages or posts (text, audio or video) that included the following? Don’t include anything you have heard about on the news or seen in films or TV shows – we’re interested in things involving people you know, friends of friends or people in your local area.


[4] Categories:

  • Violent content: Threats to beat up another child, or a group of children; fights involving children; children or young people carrying, promoting, or using weapons (e.g. a knife, screwdriver or club); any other violent content.

  • Drugs-related content: Children or young people using illegal drugs; children or young people promoting illegal drugs.

  • Violent sexual content: Sexually violent content or threats, e.g. images or threats of sexual assault.


[5] Two survey questions drove the regression analysis conducted for this research:

1. Regarding the perception of violent crime: Do you believe that violent crime has increased or decreased in the past year?

2. For the perception of safety: Have you ever been absent from school, including just part of a school day, because you felt unsafe at or on your way to or from school?


[6] Our findings explain only 9% of the differences in perceptions of violent crime, and 27% for perceptions of safety, indicating that there are other factors at play.



[8] Contextual safeguarding is an approach that was initially developed by Dr Carlene Firmin in 2015. For more information, please see https://learning.nspcc.org.uk/news/2019/october/what-is-contextual-safeguarding



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