The influence of social media on young people’s health has received significant attention in the media and in policy in recent months.

The CMO-England, the Children’s CommissionerThe Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, and the Science and Technology Committee have all recently stressed that young people must be better supported to engage with social media safely, responsibly and effectively. Much of the discussion has centred around social media sites themselves, calling for better regulation and monitoring. At the same time, schools and parents/guardians have been urged to ensure young people remain healthy and safe online.

Yet the evidence-base and advice surrounding young people and social media is sparse and contradictory, with concerns recently raised about the scientific quality of current research and whether the existing evidence-base is robust enough to inform policy and practice. In turn, many adults are reported to be confused and uncertain about how social media use influences health behaviours, and often find themselves ill-equipped to protect young people from the potential negative influences of social media and to optimize the potential of social media as a medium for health promotion.  Certainly, responses such as the recent knee-jerk bans on social media and its content could actually be harmful for young people, particularly if social media is space for them to seek understanding and support.

The contemporary digital world differs greatly to the childhood experiences of most adults, and this has inevitably created challenges for the ways in which policy makers, schools, health and education professionals/practitioners and parents and carers tend to frame and approach the types of support that they attempt to provide for young people. It has been argued that adults tend to make judgements based on their childhood experiences of passive media (e.g. magazines or TV), and while there are some similarities between ‘old’ and ‘new’ media, adults can find that they lack the knowledge and skills they need to be able to understand and engage effectively with young people’s digital spaces, as a range of international evidence illustrates. At the very least, this suggests that policy makers, schools, health and education professionals/practitioners and parents and carers need access to appropriate levels of professional support and the latest evidence-based guidance.

In our research in the School of Sport, Exercise and Rehabilitation Sciences we have been working with young people (n=1300+; age 13-18) across the UK to better understand how they use social media in relation to their health, and to understand, from their perspectives, how they can be better supported to engage with social media. The key message from this research is that:

Social media is a very powerful educative health resource that has considerable significance in the lives of young people. Most young people experience positive impacts and are critically aware users and generators of social media. While the health-related risks of social media should not be excluded, adults must focus on supporting young people to engage with social media so that they can realise more of the positive impacts on their health and wellbeing. The health-related risks of social media should not be ignored, but an action for adults is to become suitably digital literate so that they can promote positive outcomes and offer support to young people at times of vulnerability.

Notably, while much of the discussion in media and in policy has been around developing young people’s skills to participate in social media safely, the young people we worked with identified that adults’ skills, knowledge and understanding of social media must be improved. Parents/guardians were identified as a key source of support, but the young people argued that their parents “don’t get it” and that “they literally don’t have a clue”. They were also resistant to talk to their parents about issues, in fear of having their phones confiscated. In terms of teachers, “they can’t really help”, “they don’t know a lot about social media” and “they always talk about putting privacy settings up…they don’t talk about anything that really matters”. Hence, the young people called for “adults to be better informed about the problems of the current generation”. As a result, we co-created digital animated videos and key guidelines with young people for adults – and these can be accessed here.

The important point to make is that social media is a very dynamic environment where young people’s physical, social and emotional needs can change rapidly—particularly through adolescence—and negative impacts can escalate quickly as a result of the power of the medium and its content. The challenge for relevant adults who wish to offer support and guidance to young people is to know when young people are in control of social media, and when it shifts into controlling them. Therefore, a key and essential step is to focus on adult digital literacy:

Digital literacy support for adults should aim to help adults to critically evaluate the relevance of health-related information for their own and young people’s lives, as well as developing the digital skills to navigate social media sites so they can understand and offer appropriate support to young people