Uh-oh is probably the most common reaction of social care professionals to the idea that a young person in care is, or wants to use, social media. I get it. As a former residential worker, I totally get it. But and it’s a big BUT, social media and digital technologies are increasingly important parts of everyday life. I know, I know you’ve heard this all, but hear me out.
Just as social care professionals’ work with young people to help them to learn how to cook or read, we must work with young people to ensure that they have opportunities to develop their digital literacies and resilience. Digital literacies is a phrase used to describe someone’s ability to find, evaluate, create, and share digital content – particularly important in an era of growing ‘fake news’ and extremism. Digital resilience is a phrase used to describe the process of learning from mistakes and avoiding making the same mistakes again through controlled exposure in the context of supportive relationships.
So in thinking about the use of social media by young people in care, of course there is a need for be case-by-case safeguarding assessments, however, the overriding message is that young people in care, just like their peers, need guidance and support not just protection. Without guidance and support, how can they learn the skills to survive beyond the heavily regulated and restricted world of life in care? They can’t. Yet it is precisely because these young people tend to be the most vulnerable that they need the most support. And in turn, those who work with these young people need guidance about how to best do this. Unfortunately, until now, there has been very little research done to find out how young people living in state care actually use social media – and how it can help them.
That’s why I worked with colleagues to conduct a study creating an in-depth picture of how young people in care use laptops, smartphones and social media apps (full study can be found here and a summary here). We carried out more than 100 observations in four residential homes over a period of seven months. Observations meant that we saw first-hand how ten young people used social media as part of their daily lives. We also conducted focus groups and interviews with young people and their carers to discuss what we’d seen. Our three main findings were:
- Young people purposefully maintained connections and/or re-connected with friends and in some cases former carers via social media apps. They viewed connections as things that could be useful in generating a range of opportunities. Connections with peers outside their current living context and care settings themselves tended to be more sought after;
- In agreement with previous research, this theme illustrated that adolescents used social media to stay in contact with people known to them. This allowed adolescents to generate a closeness to their life before coming into care. Adolescents experienced this as significant and used connections to generate feelings of closeness;
- By connecting to formal networks (such as care home social media profiles) or informal networks (such as with friends, friends of friends etc) via social media apps, adolescents had a tool to access the benefits of existing relationships and a way to generate new ones. For the adolescents we worked with, the role of social media apps during transition processes, which dislodge and disrupt connectedness, emerged as significant. Social media use enabled opportunities for adolescents to feel more supported and connected across transitions. This suggests that social media apps may play an important role in this process for adolescents.
Social care workers need to support young people to pursue opportunities to develop digital literacies and digital resilience. As a sector, we must recognise that becoming digitally independent is a progressively important part of transitions to independence. More research is needed to support social care workers to doing this important work, and this must include young people at its heart.
You can contact Dr Hammond at:
firstname.lastname@example.org and @DrSiHammond on Twitter
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