Young People’s Engagement with Social Media: The Case for Developing Adult Digital Literacy

With recent discussions about potential harms of Instagram, particularly for teenagers, we revisit this 2019 post highlighting the need for relevant adults to become more digitally literate. 

It is well established that young people make extensive use of social media. In the UK, 83% of 12-15 year olds have a smartphone, 99% go online for over 20 hours per week, and 69% have a social media profile. It is certainly apparent that social media is a key resource in the lives of contemporary young people and is a central space for the development of identities and relationships, as well as emotional regulation, self-expression, learning and much more. At the same time, many adults find young people’s uses of social media concerning. The dominant narratives that surround young people and social media tend to be associated with risk, and the potential for negative impacts, in areas including body image and body dissatisfaction.

The key challenge is that the contemporary digital world differs greatly to the childhood experiences of most adults, and this has inevitably created difficulties 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. Many adults report that they are ill-equipped to make informed decisions about how to engage with young people’s digital worlds. Equally, many young people report that their teachers or parents rarely provide support and guidance that is relevant to the dynamic ways in which they use social media. These points suggest that relevant adults – including teachers, parents and clinicians - require access to the latest evidence-based guidance to help protect young people from risk, and to embrace the limitless opportunities on offer.

The need for adults to support and guide young people’s uses of social media has received significant attention in the media and in policy in recent months. The CMO-England, the Children’s Commissioner, The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, the Science and Technology Committee, the APPG on Social Media and Young People’s Mental Health and the recent Online Harms White Paper 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. Certainly, responses such as the recent knee-jerk bans on time spent on social media and its content could actually be harmful for young people, particularly if social media is space for young people to learn, seek understanding and support.

In our research in the School of Sport, Exercise and Rehabilitation Sciences at the University of Birmingham 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. Very clear gaps were identified between young people's and adults' understanding and experiences of social media. The young people reported that adults need to be better informed about the problems of the current generation, and be more understanding of the positive impacts as well as the risks. As a result, we co-created with young people digital animated videos and key guidelines  for adults – and these can be accessed here and used as training or learning resources. 

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

Further Information
For further information about the study and to access the guidelines, videos and academic paper, please click here.


Victoria Goodyear is a Senior Lecturer in Pedagogy in Sport, Physical Activity and Health at the University of Birmingham, UK. Her research focuses on role of digital technologies and social media in young people’s health and wellbeing, and the operation of pedagogy in digital/online contexts. She is also interested in digital ethics, participatory digital methods and knowledge translation via digital animated videos. 

Key References 
Goodyear, V.A., & Armour, K.M. (2019). Young People, Social Media and Health. London: Routledge

Goodyear, V.A., Armour, K.M., & Wood, H. (2018). Young people’s engagement with health-related social media: new perspectives. Sport, Education & Society, iFirst.



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