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How social media is setting the agenda

5 December 2013

How social media is setting the agenda – Professor Donna Cross

Young people need to be armed to safely navigate rapidly changing online environments where dominant, noisy operators can wield negative influences, Professor Donna Cross says.

Harness the positive potential of social media

“We are seeing rapidly changing social norms as a result of young people’s engagement in online environments,” she says.

Professor Cross says “noisy” operators on social media had the capacity to exert undue influence over others — especially more vulnerable young people — by presenting certain behaviours such as sexting and drinking trends as norms of behaviour that “everyone” was doing.

“Because young people perceive that everyone else is doing it, they perceive that perhaps others expect them to do it too,” she says.

“These are two of the major predictors for young people changing their behaviour quickly.”

Knowing how powerful social media was in promoting negative behaviour, Professor Cross says the challenge is to learn how to harness it to make positive behaviour changes in young people.

“A key issue for me is how we can support positive, rapidly changing norms,” she says.

“So as quickly as social media can be negative, we could make it have a positive influence, if we engage young people.”

Involve young people to devise solutions to online challenges

It was imperative that young people were involved and consulted in every aspect of research into identifying, measuring and responding to online issues and challenges, Professor Cross says.

“The online environment has created a level of mystery for many adults who are not in that environment and don’t appreciate some of the things that are going on,” she says.

“As quickly as we have worked out one issue, we are confronted with something new — without young people feeding us information about new issues and helping us understand it, we will be left behind.”

Build the capacity of young people to help themselves

Young people say that when they consult adults to solve online problems, 50 per cent of the time it makes it worse, or doesn’t change it, Professor Cross says.

Given the limited effectiveness of adults in responding to the online challenges experienced by young people, it was important they were prepared in ways to respond to challenges and develop solutions.

“The future has to be less about adults fixing problems and more about building capacity in young people to help themselves and others,” Professor Cross says.

“They need to know the responses available and understand that situations are not always linear and be prepared for complexity and chaos.”

Prepare them for chaos

The unpredictable and chaotic online world could be mentally challenging for many young people, who needed to be better equipped with the skills to cope emotionally, Professor Cross says.

“We know online environments can make people very angry very quickly, very happy very quickly or very much in love very quickly,” she says.

“With such rapid changes, young people don’t have the time they had in the past to seek advice and get help and consider consequences before they react.

“We need to be preparing young people for chaos and giving them a really strong literacy of things they can do to help themselves and friends in the online environment.”

Skills required included mental health first aid to know how to support and seek help for a friend who confided problems and a wider range of emotional and social skills.
“We can’t assume that young people are going to know how to deal with social issues in the way we have in the past – we have taught maths but we haven’t taught young people the social and emotional skills to deal with each other.”

Respect privacy

Young people need to better understand that the huge “harvest” of information they share intentionally and unintentionally on social media, could jeopardise their future and that of friends, Professor Cross says.

“Why privacy matters is an issue we need to be addressing with young people who often haven’t had enough experience to realise the impact of revealing so much about themselves online,” she says.