Trust, social media and health: Young people's uses of social media during COVID-19 and beyond

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“Leading regulatory bodies across the world have argued that young people should be better supported to engage with social media safely, responsibly, and effectively.”


Social media is integral to young people’s lives, and is thus significant in relation to their education and health. In the latest Vice-Chancellor’s Great Debate, these opportunities for young people were identified, alongside acknowledging some of the risks associated with social media use, such as the challenges associated with fake news. Contradictions were identified by the panel in relation to social media as a context for peace vs instability, a force for good vs a context of harm, and/or a space of democracy vs power. Reflecting the discussions in the Great Debate it is perhaps not surprising then that many adults who have a responsibility for young people (including parents, teachers, policy makers and health professionals) are confused and uncertain about social media, and its impact on young people’s education and health.

Leading regulatory bodies across the world have argued that young people should be better supported to engage with social media safely, responsibly, and effectively. Examples include the UK Chief Medical Officers, the Children’s Commissioner in the UK, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, and the Science and Technology Committee. Much of the debate has centred on social media sites and the need for better regulation and monitoring of content and use.

The urgent need for young people to be better supported in their engagement with social media is even more significant now during COVID-19. Our research in the School of Sport, Exercise and Rehabilitation Sciences demonstrates that since the social distancing measures came into effect, young people are spending more hours per day on social media, and that there has been an influx of health information shared via social media that is not moderated, and users are required to make judgements on content that is high quality and evidence-based vs content that Is visually appealing and is sometimes factually incorrect. At the same time, social media provides opportunities to connect young people with friends and family members, and address key social development issues. In this context, the default position to ban and block social media use is likely to be unhelpful to young people and their development. Instead, the key challenge facing many relevant adults is knowing how to support young people in ways that simultaneously maximise opportunities and minimise the potential risks of social media.

At a time when movement outside of the home is restricted, social media provides a great opportunity to reach many people, particularly those who are concerned that they are at increased risk due to an underlying health condition. Hence in our current work in the School of Sport, Exercise and Rehabilitation Sciences we are exploring how social media is being used in relation to health during COVID-19 for young people and also other population groups who are shielding/vulnerable and/or active or inactive. Overall that work is illustrating that social media is a significant resource for socialising and learning, but for wider physical and mental wellbeing. Furthermore, and building on our earlier research, 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. For 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 we suggest 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.

We are interested in your views on the relationship between social media and health. If you are interested in supporting knowledge of this topic please complete the following survey, called Optimising Social Media for Physical Activity & Nutrition during COVID-19 that takes around 10 minutes to complete and is available online until the end of June.