On Sunday, I had the pleasure/misfortune to find myself sitting between two scientists arguing vehemently over their differing perceptions of the dangers of social media.
Appearing on BBC One’s The Big Questions – as part of a panel exploring the question "has social media ruined childhood?" – I was seated between University of Leeds visiting professor Max Blumberg and Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) president Russell Viner.
In the red corner, Blumberg argued that the human brain was never "designed" (whatever that should mean in the context of evolution) to receive the amount of stimulus that social media provides; he insisted that more research was needed on the effect of constant dopamine hits.
In the blue corner, Viner countered that, if you're going to talk about design, you might as well say we’ve only had books for a few thousand years and, just like books, it’s not the internet in of itself that’s the issue – it’s the content. Just like a book, social media has the power to educate, mislead or radicalise.
I suspect there is a nugget of truth in both stances, but instinctively I found myself agreeing more with Viner. Recent research from the RCPCH finds that any damage done by social media is specific rather than general.
The tendency by the media and cabinet politicians has been to demonise the entire medium, and to exacerbate the fears of parents and teachers in the process. Yet, both government and traditional media have a vested interest in making social media the enemy – the former because it conveniently absolves them of responsibility for wider, social causes of poor mental health, and the latter because digital news is slowly putting them out of business.
Indeed, a recent report from the cross-party Science and Technology Select Committee, which was compiled after extensive consultation with experts, identifies specific areas for concern, including cyberbullying and grooming, rather than taking the stance that any access to social media is inherently damaging.
In my workshops and assemblies for schools, I’ve always taken the stance that it’s for young people, their parents and teachers to decide how much time they spend online. It’s not my job to convince them to regulate their access.
What I can do, however, is teach young people to think critically about the content they are exposed to and to understand the sophisticated algorithms manipulating that content. Critical-consumption skills provide armour for the digital world.
I’m always astounded by the amount of young people who don’t know, for example, that their activity is being tracked across different web platforms, hence advertising is "tailored" to their perceived interests. Or that social media apps requesting access to their microphone means that anything they say within earshot of their phone can be monitored by an algorithm. Or that neither of these applies solely to advertising – that broader content, such as videos and current affairs information, is specifically selected to confirm their pre-existing biases.
Consent is key
As I type, it’s Safer Internet Day, a campaign spearheaded by the UK Safer Internet Centre in partnership with several not-for-profit organisations, including charity Childnet. This year, they have chosen to focus on "consent" as a key aspect of children’s relationship with the internet. According to their research, almost half (48 per cent) of young people believe their peers don’t always think before posting. Their website provides a toolkit for parents and teachers to enable conversations about internet consent.
One of the key tips included in the toolkit is for adults to take a "balanced" approach, bearing in mind that children have a different relationship with social media and gaming, and are likely to consider it more integral to their lives. This stance is supported by research undertaken by Cambridge University for Channel 4 documentary Porn on the Brain in 2013, which showed those young people most vulnerable to porn – or indeed any type of addiction – came from households who either took a draconian, zero-tolerance approach or one of completely unsupervised, unlimited access.
Maithreyi Rajeshkumar, policy and communications manager at Childnet UK, said this “doesn’t mean understanding in detail all things that children do and experience online, but it does mean respecting the importance of digital technology in young people’s lives…Parents [and teachers] need to reassure children they can turn to them about any concerns without getting into trouble.”
Ultimately, the message on social media is this: it isn’t going anywhere. Like anything, it has both negative and positive consequences, depending on how it is used. The challenge for adults is to try to get themselves sufficiently up to speed with a fast-changing digital world and, according to the UK Safer Internet Centre, that’s a process that begins with a conversation.
Natasha Devon is the former government mental health champion. She is a writer and campaigner, and averages three UK school visits per week. She tweets @_natashadevon. Find out more about her work here