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Research : Unreality: social media and its challenges for the youth of today … Jeff Johns, Research Director, Northstar Research Partners

Social media is redefining what it means to be a teenager

Over the course of history, and particularly in recent decades, technology has repeatedly redefined the lives of young people. During the 20th century, the rise of the telephone expanded communication opportunities hugely.

In the 90s, computers and the worldwide web changed the art of report writing from a process of sifting through books and encyclopaedias (remember Encyclopaedia Britannica?) to a much more efficient online identifying and sorting of information. And in the past decade, social media has shifted how teenagers the world over communicate and interact.

While all three examples above have represented fundamental changes, social media is arguably changing young people’s lives in much more expansive – and long lasting ways.

For teens today, social media appears impossible to escape from

It is no secret that teenagers today can find it impossible to pause or give up their online interactions. For example, BBC News recently challenged students at Tarporley High School to give up all social media for one week. Unsurprisingly, students found this difficult – even those who were excited and interested going into the experience. The pressure to check unread messages and post interesting experiences was hard to move away from.

While students reported engaging in more intimate conversations with parents and turning to such ‘old fashioned’ means of communications with friends as email and actually dialling a number, it was clear that by the end of the week even those who kept it up were ready to return to their previous habits with relief.

What does this addiction to social media mean? While there are certainly positive elements, easing communication and expanding horizons to name only two, teenagers who are still developing and learning to adapt to the world are likely to be particularly vulnerable to the many downsides of the medium.

Unread Messages: from research to art

These negatives have been illuminated by ‘Unread Messages’, a research and artistic creation process by Northstar Research Partner’s and Six:Thirty. For ‘Unread Messages’ Northstar created a unique research journey utilising a bespoke insight community to explore technology and social media. These findings were then developed into a series of creative briefs for a range of designers and artists, currently exhibited at the world renowned Aram Gallery in Covent Garden, London.

The dark side of social media

The research and artistic creation process identified several ‘dark themes’ that surround social media and there affect on the youth of today:

The perceived lack of consequences…

Words spoken online can be tossed off without people recognising their true meaning. In the often emotional life of a teenager, hurtful words can be felt deeply. A quick Google search can reveal the consequences of this, with stories of teenagers who took their own lives after online bullying.

Immortalised thoughts…

Comments made and pictures shared online are much more eternal than a voiced sentence or passed over holiday snap. Yet, who is the same at 32 as they were at 16 – and would today’s 32 year olds like their prospective employers, for example, to be able to see what they thought at a much younger age? Likely not. Yet today’s teens potentially face a life of being constantly re-acquainted with their younger selves.

Curated lives…

It is common on social media to work to present an idealised version of yourself. For an undeveloped youngster, what are the long term consequences of learning one should present only a scrubbed clean version of himself or herself to the world?

Social muting…

If everything that happens is shared online, what do today’s teens have left to talk about in person? This presents worrying possibilities for their communication and storytelling abilities.

Information overload…

Today we are all deluged in data and information and have had to adapt to process it. However, for younger people who are growing up in this world, is it hurting their ability to engage in depth with a topic and keep their attention focused?

Never turning off…

Linking all the above is the sense that this online world never goes to sleep – there are always comments to look at, videos to browse and people to message. What are the risks of being quite literally unable to get away from it all?

What can be done?

Social media is here to stay and, at least in the short term, teenagers are unlikely to voluntarily lessen their usage patterns. So what can be done?

What can parents do?

  • Set firm guidelines for usage, including ‘technology breaks’
  • Utilise content blocking to protect younger teens from inappropriate sites
  • For older teens, keep lines of communication open and remain attentive to worrying behaviour
  • Encourage healthy conversation and debate within the family – create offline conversation!

What can brands and platforms do?

  • Wherever possible, ensure content provided to teens is age-appropriate
  • Avoid using deceptive emotional hooks to grab attention
  • Accept responsibility for actions that have negative consequences

Jeff Johns, Research Director, Northstar Research Partners


Graphics by Shutterstock