[Summary: Extract from an article exploring how online social networks have become part of the landscape of many young people’s lives]
I was recently asked to write an article for the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI)’s Freedom From Fear magazine on young people’s engagement with social network sites. You can find the full article over here, which outlines some of the history and wider context of social networks, but, following a kind tweet from Noel Hatch, I thought it might be worth reproducing on particular section below: a section inspired by my experience at the 2010 Internet Governance Forum when I heard strong versions of each of the statements in bold below used as core premises in arguments about aspects of Internet policy, rarely countered by more balanced assessments of whether these statements really held up as valid generalisations.
Opportunities and risks: Myths and realities
The challenge in thinking about the impacts of social networks is to cut through reactions based on unfamiliarity or fear, to identify the risks and opportunities they create and, equally as important, the changes that new technologies make to the background conditions of what constitutes a viable policy response to any concerns that they do give rise to.
So what of the different concerns. Are these myths or reality?
- Young people are wasting time on social networks. Many young people can certainly end up spending a lot of time on social networks, though often this is multi-tasking time, doing other things as well as being online or linked to a network by phone. Some young people do identify that they want to spend less time in front of Facebook, or on a particular network. Howard Rheingold has written of the importance of helping young people develop ‘attention literacy’ to know when to tune out from the flow of conversation in online networks and to focus on other tasks. The Digital Youth report noted that time spent with digital media can be effective informal learning time, and many young people will explain that they were using SNS to get help from friends with projects or homework or even using networks to help them find employment.
- Young people don’t believe in privacy and are over-sharing. The 10 billion photos and thousands of status updates every minute on sites like Facebook show that SNS users share a lot of content about themselves online. Some have argued that this leads to the end of privacy. Whilst most social network sites offer some privacy features, users may leave their content open to anyone to view, and it can appear as if they do not care about privacy at all. danah boyd describes how much of this arises from individuals having an ‘imagined audience’ who they think are reading/engaging with their content – when the real audience may be quite different. However, danah also describes how many young people adopt sophisticated strategies to manage their privacy. There are both risks and benefits to new forms of SNS-enabled online transparency: risks of identity theft or of state surveillance of individuals are, for many, set against benefits of sharing in online communities, or being visible in ways that can bring better job prospects or other opportunities. Privacy isn’t dead; but it is constantly evolving.
- Social networks expose young people to dangerous ideas or groups. Undoubtedly the ability for anyone to publish content through social media spaces means there is a lot of negative and potentially harmful content available – and some young people do come across and engage with this content online. Gangs may use social networks to organise, and the way in which most networks only moderate or check content when it is reported to them as problematic means that a lot of harmful content can exist openly relatively undetected by authorities. But just because content is on YouTube or posted somewhere on Facebook, does not mean it is right in front of everyone – most young people never voyage far on a social network from the spaces where their friends are – but some undoubtedly may end up in more harmful ‘dark alleyways’ of the networks.
- Young people are at risk from sexual predators and abusive adults through SNS. There have been high-profile stories in a number of countries about cases of sexual abuse of young people facilitated by contact on social network sites. In sidelining adult gatekeepers, social networks can facilitate contact between young people and abusive adults – although the absolute number of cases of Internet-mediated harm is small in comparison to the number of young people abused by adults known to them from their family or local community. Research from the Crimes Against Children Research Centre in the United States(11) suggests that those vulnerable to online abuse are often the young people with existing vulnerabilities offline too.
One simple way of understanding SNS is as ‘amplifiers’. They can amplify the opportunities available to young people with existing positive connections and opportunities; but they can also amplify the vulnerabilities of the vulnerable. Offering vulnerable and disadvantaged young people support to develop the skills to get the most out of online social networking may turn out to be an important role for those who work with them.
Returning to the earlier metaphor of SNS as new public squares (or, to extend the metaphor, whole towns with public and private spaces), they do present some particular policy challenges. Most social networks services are privately owned by companies with commercial goals for the networks – they are ‘privatized public space’. They are also global spaces, making it difficult for national norms of regulations to be applied to them. That is why innovations in governance remain a pressing issue, and a topic that has been discussed at The Internet Governance Forum over recent years, including by the Youth Coalition on Internet Governance.
What do you think about these suggested myths and realities? Do they match with your experience or insights? What other common perceptions about social networks need to be explored in more depth?