Social media and social networks are clearly a new force in the lives of contemporary youth, but it is not clear what the results might be of this new reality. Youth face very different challenges and opportunities than their parents or ancestors at the cause of this new and more rapidly paced online world, and social media and the networked communications that go with it are a great part of that. While youth today face more difficulties and challenges because there are more eyes upon them, more interaction and more potential for public shaming, experts have warned that the paternalism and protection of the previous generations is unnecessary. Further youth are likely to transform the challenges of social media into a new and more engaged world, both social and politically. In other words, youth can handle the impacts of social media; they have grown up with it, harnessed it and they are ready for the networked world.
There has been a great deal of coverage regarding how social media impacts the personal identity of youth. It leads them to have to brand and market themselves, always concerned about how they appear to others and subject to the scorn or bullying of peers at all hours of the day. Newspaper stories have reported on tragic situations created by social media, such as those where youth were outed as being gay or humiliated publicly. Social media certainly has a bigger effect than that the schoolyard or verbal communication of the youth generations which came before. Youth today cannot really hide problems in the same way that previous generations could (Nagar, 2015). Vicious comments and commentaries can remain for years and decades, searchable using an online engine like Google, for the entire world to see. Youth cannot hide from others or from themselves, as digital pictures capture their best and worst moments and preserve them for posterity, long after their situations and lives may have changed (Nagar, 2015).
Boyd (2014) argues in her book that while youth deal with new challenges because of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, the concerns of their parents and others from the previous generations are not warranted. While the older generation may have trouble coping in this new environment, or imagining what it is like for youth, youth spend their whole lives learning how to deal with this new and more complex networked world. Many of the ideas of so called experts in psychology or sociology who muse on the negative impacts of social media reflect the fears of the older generation that never had the opportunity to adjust to such a major change (Boyd, 2014). While identity, safety and privacy have changed for the latest generation they are simply different dangers, and all generations of youth face dangers. The ideas of increased danger are essentially myths based on the difficulties that are projected by older people who are not ready to engage on the level that youth today have been able to manage (Boyd, 2014). In fact, the interference of well-meaning people in the older generation can be harmful by preventing youth from being able to fully acclimatize and accommodate the new reality (Boyd, 2014). Being overprotective of youth today only creates situations where they will in the future be less capable of dealing with conflict and opposition, and today with the interconnectedness of all people there is more rather than less conflict. Boyd further states that youth today are becoming more informed, reflective and engaged than any generation that came before (Boyd, 2014). Youth have expectations that previous generations do not, and they value their ability for instantaneous communication, whether it is to sell their iPhone or their ideas, and they have learned or are learning to negotiate the negative aspects of trolling, bullying and disagreement that go along with this (Boyd, 2014). As Boyd states, it may be complicated, but the youth of today are doing fine and do not need the assistance of the generations who are still uneasy about the new world order (Boyd, 2014).
Social media has done more than turn the spotlight on youth in a personal way, it has also highlighted their own ability to scrutinize and comment on the world around them. This is particularly true of political and democratic concerns. Youth are already used to participating in online groups and campaigns, and it is simply natural for them to engage in their political beliefs through social media (Middaugh, Bowyer & Kahne, 2016). The results of this kind of activity can already be seen in terms of youth participation in matters which concern them at the local, national and international levels. Youth can talk in instant messages in the same way that revolutionaries used to gather in dark bars and coffee shops, and planning and marketing of messages is far easier today than it was in the past. Further, youth are more likely to know what their peers think about various political issues because of the prevalence of their posts in their feed. Research into issues is nearly instantaneous and fact checking and correction happens in a way that it never could in previous generations. A survey of youth and their civic development and engagement shows that they are also more exposed to political conflict and opposing ideas in the online world (Middaugh et al, 2016). Youth are more likely to get their political news through their friends, rather than news outlets, and they trust their peers more than news anchors. To that end it is clear that mainstream media will not be in control of this generation, and a new era of political engagement is coming as the practices and approaches of youth today become the mainstream methods of political action and understanding (Middaugh et al, 2016). It is already happening and having a great impact, from places as far away as Chile to Egypt to rural America youth are engaging and changing the political landscape (Middaugh et al, 2016). Certainly they may be sarcastic, jaded and even simplistic in their assessment of political concerns, however it is youth today who are choosing what is important, and not the headlines of newspapers, and the conflict which goes along with such engagement is simply the conflict that they have already become accustomed to through the personal and other aspects of a life lived online (Middaugh et al, 2016).
The impact of social media on the youth of today is clearly one that represents great change from the problems and opportunities faced by previous generations. There have been tragic situations, and unlike the decades before these are often reported on and discussed in the media. In previous generations they might be discussed by concerned parents and the older generation in hushed voiced behind closed doors, but this is part of the great change that has been brought by the connected and online world which is driven by social media. The expectations are very different today with regard to identity and privacy, and this includes the way that youth expect to be talked about, the way that they talk about others and the way that they talk about what is important to them. There are difficulties and challenges, including potential humiliation and embarrassment, inherent in this world, but there is also the potential for a great and positive change based on increased honesty and communication. While this may create a great deal of stress for the older generations who care for and wish to protect youth, as Boyd states, the kids are alright. They are learning and developing the ability to adapt to this world very quickly, and great good is likely to come of it.
- Boyd, D. (2014). It’s complicated: The social lives of networked teens. Yale University Press.
- Middaugh, E., Bowyer, B., & Kahne, J. (2016). U Suk! Participatory Media and Youth Experiences with Political Discourse. Youth & Society, 0044118X16655246.
- Nagar, R. (2015). Social Media-The Not So Social Consequences. Indian Journal of Medical & Health Sciences, 2(1), 41.