A Review of the Risks Associated with Children and Young People’s Social Media Use and the Implications for Social Work Practice


This study reviewed the research literature to understand what the research tells us about the nature of the risks posed to children and young people by their social media use.

Studies observed the convergence of offline and online networks as a developing risk. Picture: jelenaaloskina/Adobe stock
Studies observed the convergence of offline and online networks as a developing risk. Picture: jelenaaloskina/Adobe stock
  • Mark Willoughby, Journal of Social Work Practice: Psychotherapeutic Approaches in Health, 33(2), (2019)

The review included research published since 2010 and based on the specific exclusion and inclusion criteria for the review. Fifteen studies were included in the analysis.

Findings

Four areas were identified where there is a risk that children and young people can be exposed to harm through their use of social media:

  1. Cyberbullying and online abuse. This was a theme identified in seven papers. Despite the research studies being conducted in several different countries – Norway, Singapore and five in America – the widespread prevalence of cyberbullying highlights this as a global issue, reflective of the transnational nature of social media platforms. No studies were found that explored social work practice responding to cyberbullying, suggesting a gap in the research.
  2. Exposure to negative forms of user-generated content. EU Kids Online research suggests that 14 per cent of nine to 16 year olds have viewed sexualised images online in the past 12 months; and 15 per cent of 11 to 16 year olds have been recipients of sexual messages or images from peers (Livingstone et al. 2011).
  3. The converging of offline and online networks. Several studies observed the convergence of offline and online networks as a developing area of risk for children and young people, with one study suggesting that 59 per cent of nine to 16 year olds have a social networking profile (Livingstone et al., 2011). The behaviours and safeguards of the ‘real’ world are not always applied in a ‘virtual’ world where friends can be added at the click of button and information shared in an instant (UK Council for Child Internet Safety, 2010).
  4. Developing interpretations of privacy. Analysis of children’s online activities by Livingstone et al. (2011) suggested some evidence of personal privacy on social media being understood, with 43 per cent maintaining privacy settings so that only friends can see their profile; 28 per cent making it partially private so that friends of friends can see it; 26 per cent making their profile visible to anyone; and three per cent unknown.

Other findings

The research also highlighted how the extent of the risk depends upon the developmental stage and social circumstances. The findings suggest that children aged approximately nine to 11 begin exploring the question of what is real or fake; by 11 to 13, what is fun, even if it is transgressive or fake; and by 14 to 16, what is valuable for them in their increasingly complex social and emotional lives (Livingstone, 2014).

The evidence arising from most of the reviewed literature suggests that in general, those with offline vulnerabilities are most at risk of being harmed by their online activity and that as offline and online social networks converge, so do offline and online problems.

Conclusion

This study concludes that social media use is still an under-researched area and the harms caused by social media use are in particular relatively unknown. This study suggests that rigorously evaluated tools are needed for social workers to use in assessing risk arising from social media use to assist safeguarding practice.

Implications for practice

Social workers can:

  • Develop their understanding of different social media platforms in order to identify risks and maximise opportunities.
  • Tailor assessment approaches to ensure social media use and its effect on those of different ages and backgrounds is considered
  • Consider their role in educating children and their parents about the risks of social media use
  • In relation to cyberbullying, the literature suggests that social workers and practitioners need to do things like raise awareness of what cyberbullying is and to help young people to reduce the amount of time on social networking sites.


Click here for more in CYP Now's Technology in Children’s Services Special Report

CYP Now Digital membership

  • Policy and research analysis
  • Evidence-based case studies
  • Leadership advice
  • Legal updates
  • Local area spotlights

From £170 /year

Subscribe

CYP Now Magazine

  • Policy and research analysis
  • Evidence-based case studies
  • Leadership advice and interviews
  • Legal updates

From £136 /year

Subscribe