When young people are “looked after” by the state, they can live in a variety of care placements including children’s homes, foster parents or with friends or birth family relatives. These young people are known to be especially vulnerable to poor mental health. Many share too much with people who may do them harm – and too little with carers who are trying to help.
Until now, many thought that the risks that go along with young people in care using social media – including unwelcome contact from their birth family – outweighed any potential benefits. This assumption overshadowed the evidence that using social media can promote “social capital” – a term used to describe the opportunities available from knowing and being connected to other people. And as a result, very little research was done to find out how young people living in state care actually use social media – and how it can help them.
A sense of belonging
That’s why my colleagues and I conducted a study, which was recently published in the British Journal of Social Work, to create an in-depth picture of how young people in care use laptops, smart phones and social media apps.
To do this, 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.
We found that our ten young respondents used social media apps to keep up to date with friends and in some cases their birth family or previous carers. But rather than presenting a risk to their wellbeing, these updates about everyday life events actually provided them with a sense of belonging and connectedness.
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The emotional support they got from people outside the care environment was also very important – especially for those who frequently reported feeling worthless, depressed and isolated. Research shows that for people who move around frequently, it’s better to have a wider network of friends, to minimise the damage caused by moving around. We also found that a “broad and shallow” networking tactic offered access to a wider range of opportunities for young people in care.
Indeed, the young people in our study used social media to help ease moves from care homes. This is crucial, as young people leaving care often report that these moves make them feel psychologically lost.
It was reassuring that all of the young people in our study were very protective of their online privacy. But ideas of privacy differed greatly between professionals and young people. Professionals tended to talk about privacy settings and monitoring, as they struggled to support access while trying to control risks. But as our previous research has shown, young people tend to want to ask for advice on privacy settings from peers or carers – not be given instructions by carers.
In some cases, young people felt that professionals were trying to connect with them on social media in order to monitor them – which they saw as an attempt to breach their privacy.
Growing up online
It could be that the way young people in care use social media changes as they move between different types of placements. And we’re not sure whether using social media can sometimes be less helpful in times of poor emotional well-being and mental health. But we’re keen to do more work, looking at how to support young people in care to use social media, while recognising that different risks may be reduced as young people become young adults.
Managing your own affairs online is becoming an important part of teenagers’ transition into adulthood, so social workers and carers need to support young people in care to do that in a safe and healthy way. This means offering guidance to teenagers, when it comes to assessing and managing the risks of social media use.
People often learn by making mistakes, so it’s crucial for support workers to help young people learn from their errors – rather than trying to protect them by restricting their access to the internet. Many young people are still figuring out how to handle social media, and there is no doubt it can have negative impacts on mental health. But clearly, there are positives too – even for vulnerable young people in care. The next step is to figure out how to make the most of it.