Is Young People’s Time on Social Media Misspent?

By Antigone Davis, Global Head of Safety

It wasn’t long after our daughter got her first mobile phone that we spotted a telling glow from under her bedroom door at night. I’m sure a lot of parents reading this have experienced something similar.

When I asked her about it, her response was pretty fair, “Well, don’t you look at your phone all the time?”

It was confronting and a good lesson for me in setting the right example as a parent.

My daughter’s now at university, but we’re still having the same conversations about our online habits. And we’re not the only ones.

What’s the right amount of time for people to spend online? What effect is technology having on our children and their development? What value does social media add to our lives? These critical questions are an increasing focus for everyone, from parents to policy makers.

And they’re questions we are asking ourselves at Facebook too.

One of the ways we start thinking about how to respond to these challenges is with research — reviewing what others have found and conducting our own when we need to learn more.

As part of this, we recently commissioned independent think tank Demos, which has a long history of research into the impacts of social media on society and well-being, to provide a detailed look at how social media shapes young people’s experiences online and their lives in the real world.

We feel this research is important for two reasons.

First, there is a lot of attention on the argument that young people are spending too much time online, and that this is inherently a bad thing. Our own research tells us that this isn’t a binary question of “how much time online is good or bad” but that it’s more important to look at how time is being spent, what value people get from it and what impact does it have on their lives.

We also wanted to learn directly from young people about the time they spend on digital platforms. Like my daughter, the smartphone generation have grown up with technology all around them and are more adept at using online tools and apps than any generation before them. And yet we aren’t hearing from them in the wider debate. All too often we talk about them, rather than listen to them. We assume, we guess and, at worst, we misjudge. It’s time we asked.

Perspectives of the Smartphone Generation

To inform their report “Plugged in: Youth Engagement Through Social Media,” Demos’ researchers spoke to community leaders, campaigners, policy makers, and most importantly thousands of young people across the UK.

What it shows is that social media can be a powerful platform for social action and help young people have meaningful impact in their community, such as building large-scale campaigns and movements. It reveals that young people are optimistic about the benefits social media platforms like Facebook can offer and feel strongly that they are a critical tool for mobilising social action in the UK:

  • 9 out of 10 think it is a net positive, and two-thirds (64%) see social media platforms as an essential part of achieving social change.
  • Over half (55%) believe social media makes positive offline change more likely to happen.

The survey also found that young people are highly engaged with their community and civil society through social media:

  • Around half a million young people across the UK have used social media to communicate with politicians and political groups in the past 12 months and they credit social media as integral to successful campaigning.
  • Beyond political campaigns, half of young people (50%) are in daily online contact with a local community group or charity.
  • Half (50%) are involved in non-party political campaigns through social media, like this year’s Women’s March.

Despite this 2 out of 3 young people feel their time on social media is misunderstood and unfairly criticised by older generations.

We want to play our part in helping those young people find a voice on Facebook and that’s why earlier this year we announced the Facebook Community Leadership programme in London, a global initiative that invests in helping people build communities in the real world. As part of this, we’ve committed tens of millions of dollars to the program, including up to $10 million in grants that will go directly to people creating and leading these Facebook groups.

Tackling Bad Behaviours on Our Platform

Demos’ report also highlights the things we could be doing to help address some of the challenges young people face on social media, including the sad reality of abusive behaviours and the spread of misinformation.

These are challenges we are determined to tackle head on. In the first three months of this year, we removed 2.5 million pieces of hate speech, 38% of which were flagged by our technology before anyone saw it, and the rest of which was proactively reported by our community and then taken down. We have doubled our global safety and security team to 20,000 people to improve our ability to remove harmful content.

We’re also working hard to increase digital literacy and tackle misinformation on our platforms. For example, we recently launched a new education resource for educators to help young people think critically about what they read and share online, and block millions of fake accounts every day when they are created which is incredibly important in fighting spam, abuse, fake news, misinformation and bad ads. You can read more about our work in this area here and here.

The researchers at Demos have also raised the very real risk that campaigning groups who lack the right digital skills to amplify their work could be excluded or left behind. We know better than most how important digital skills are in today’s society and we’re determined to prevent people falling through the digital cracks. That’s why we announced that over the next two years Facebook will partner with Freeformers to offer training to 300,000 people across the EU in UK, France, Germany, Poland, Italy and Spain, ranging from how to open a bank account online all the way to teaching coding. Our Social Good team also offers dedicated support to non-profits, ranging from mentorship to specific fundraising tools, to ensure even the voices of the smallest organisations are heard.

A Commitment for the Long Term

What is evident from the report is the need for collaboration. As Demos has argued, for social media to be used at its best — as a tool for building connections, for mobilisation and for driving positive change — there needs to be a coordinated effort to work together to recognise its value and protect it.

At Facebook, we already work closely with the people who use our platform, with experts and with policy makers to create tools people need to make lasting change in their communities and to help keep them safe on Facebook. But we can’t do it alone. Tech companies, campaigners, device-makers and government; we all have a role to play in ensuring that we give young people the education and safeguards they need to ensure their experience online is positive.

We hope this report will help stimulate important collaboration around this shared goal from both industry and government and provide a much needed showcase for the positive real world impact of young people on our society.

“Plugged in: Youth Engagement Through Social Media,” by Demos can be found here:

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