Researcher Blog: Learning the Language of Social Media with Young People

Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Dr Teresa Swirski is part of the research team behind Safe and Well Online. In this blog, she reflects on her presentation of some of their research on participatory design at two international conferences, last month in October. 

A fan of Instagram over Pinterest or Tumblr? Bored with Snapchat, liking Kik? Favour your Pheed over VineReddit rules, not Twitter? Have no idea what they mean… or just plain confused about whether these tools are being used for good or evil?

If these social media terms aren’t part of your regular vocabulary, or you’re unsure about the mixed messages of their pros and cons, you’re definitely not alone. Many government, industry, not-for-profit, educational and research organisations are also scratching their heads in wonder about it all. The use of social media is transforming the ways many people communicate with one another and experience everyday life. For example, there has been a significant rise in young people accessing social networks, as highlighted in Game On: Exploring the Impact of Technologies on Young Men’s Mental Health and Wellbeing. Plus, with young people’s access to mobile technologies also on the upward trajectory (see Pew Research Centre’s Teens and Technology 2013 report), it’s more vital than ever to listen to what young people think about these technological and social changes. Instead of traditional, adult-centric solutions being imposed from above, there’s a shift toward involving young people more closely in exploring a range of complex issues, such as: How do youth interpret and value concepts such as ‘digital participation’ and ‘safety’? What are the best ways to communicate messages about mental health and wellbeing to a broad youth audience? Social media platforms are raising a whole host of challenges and opportunities (which many teenagers are more aware of than adults) – and researchers are realising the value of integrating young people’s voices in these conversations, so as to help translate mixed messages.

Recently I attended the International Association for Youth Mental Health Conference in Brighton, UK – where young people were very much at the heart! With a large audience of researchers, young people and practitioners, the conference showcased a range of projects and initiatives. Of particular interest was a presentation by PhD student Paul Best from the University of Ulster, on his mixed-method project exploring young men, wellbeing and help-seeking behaviour. From preliminary findings, he reported how respondents valued trust and quality in online health information (though were more likely to use search engines and social networking sites for finding this information, as opposed to government sponsored websites). This highlights not only the potential to connect young men to relevant health information and services – but also the current gap between matching online habits to resources.

Also as part of this trip, I attended the Digital Culture: Promises and Discomforts Workshop in Bonn, Germany, which explored a range theories and methods to gain insights into the interplay of technology, communication and social change. One of many valuable exchanges was with Laura Kinsella from the Dublin Institute of Technology, who is utilising a participatory ethnographic approach with young immigrants in Cork city. Her doctoral research project explores the conflicting discourses of media literacy – between the promises of youth empowerment and the perils of youth stereotypes. This flags the importance of not taking digital access and opportunity for granted – and to be alert to the relationships of power that are expressed in new ways in online spaces.

I presented at both of these events about the Young and Well CRC’s Safe and Well Online project, sharing the youth engagement aspects of the ‘Keep it Tame’ and ‘@ppreciate’ (image pictured) campaigns and outlining how participatory design has been utilised in exploring technology use, online and offline experiences and issues, as well as social marketing campaign ideas and insights. Participatory design is a methodology that involves young people as active participants in processes of social change. It seeks to engage young people in dialogue about their experiences, knowledge and ideas in order to meaningfully inform novel strategies and interventions. A Young and Well CRC publication, Participatory Design of Evidence-based Online Youth Mental Health Promotion, Intervention and Treatment, highlights this valuable combination in its framework and suggested methods.

Since the start of the project, the team has documented an amazing range of young people’s views about what technology means to them in their everyday lives. Ranging from the Cybersafety Summit, to school-based workshops, as well as the Safe and Well Online Campaign Collaborators and Youth Brains Trust – it’s been fascinating to listen to the enthusiasm, knowledge and experiences of young people. The Safe and Well Online project is utilising social marketing with the aim of fostering young people’s safety and wellbeing online – and it’s their views which can help lead the way. This knowledge sharing process between young people, researchers, policymakers, practitioners, digital media and online safety experts aims to enhance the relevance and impact of behaviour change initiatives.

There will never be one simple solution to unpack the many mixed messages revolving around young people and their technology use. The complexity of the issue requires ongoing dialogue and action involving young people – and participatory design offers a pathway for this process to unfold. The diverse ways in which young people use, value and experience social media can be what makes or breaks how a message is ‘translated’ – its communication and reception. Instead of preaching to young people about the ills, or ideals, of cyberspace – it’s time to let them participate more fully in shaping their wellbeing in the digital world.

13/07/2016 to 15/07/2016
Student Well-Being and Prevention of Violence Research Centre Conference
24/07/2016 to 27/07/2016
National Suicide Prevention Conference
28/07/2016 to 29/07/2016
SYHPANZ Conference – Absolutely Positively Youth Health
10/08/2016 to 12/08/2016
17th International Mental Health Conference
Posted: 12 November, 2013

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