Young people in state care may reap psychological, emotional, and social benefits through the use of social media networks, according to a new UK study by researchers from the Centre for Research on the Child and Family (CRCF) at the University of East Anglia in England.
Until now, many have assumed that social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp would only pose a risk for this vulnerable group.
But the new findings, published in the British Journal of Social Work, show that social media can help young people living in state care maintain healthy and appropriate birth family relationships and friendships, make new connections and ease transitions between placements and adult independence.
In particular, social media platforms such as Facebook can contribute to increased self-esteem and mental well-being, which is particularly helpful for young people in care who frequently report feeling worthless, depressed, and isolated.
“Young people in care face harder, faster, and steeper transitions into adulthood with fewer resources than their peers,” said lead researcher Dr. Simon Hammond. “Placement instability often leads to young people feeling abandoned and isolated at points in their lives when they are at their most vulnerable.
“The young people we worked with talked about how many friends or followers they had on social media. And it was the contacts outside their immediate state care environment that young people saw as their most precious commodity.”
For the study, Hammond made more than 100 visits to four residential care settings in England over a period of seven months. During this time, he conducted in-depth observations on how 10 young people routinely used social media in their everyday lives. He also conducted focus groups and interviews with the young people and their social care professionals.
According to the findings, having positive online networks helped young people in care gain “social capital”. In addition, digital networks were found to help piece together a fragmented social life and act as a bridge beyond the immediate care-home environment.
“Having a strong social support network helps with the physical and psychological isolation reported by young people in care,” said Hammond. “We found that emotional support from people outside the care environment was very important. Keeping up to date with friends and, in some cases birth family members, about everyday life events really helped provide a sense of belonging and connectedness.”
“Stigma and shame are described by many young people in state care. We found that social media provides a window to life before being in care and a way of distancing themselves from it.”
Social media can also help young people at risk of homelessness as they transfer out of state care.
“If young people can reconnect with, create and maintain networks, they have a better chance of accessing supportive networks when it comes to things like finding accommodation,” said Hammond.
In addition, social media offers adolescents the chance to network with organizations that can help them with opportunities for personal progression. However, young people in state care might not want to “like” or “follow” organizations that highlight their experiences because it may leave them vulnerable to stigma.
“Communication via social media carries risks for all users. However, these risks do not stop their usage. Understandably, from the perspective of staff at residential care homes, there was a lot of concern about how best to monitor internet use but we need to be engaged in this digital space to help protect society’s most vulnerable young people,” said Hammond.
Source: University of East Anglia