Are Facebook, the selfie and Snapchat threatening the moral character and values of young people?

Not so long ago, if a child wanted to contact a friend they probably asked a parent’s permission to use the telephone.

The phone was in a communal space and even if the call took place out of earshot the adult knew it was taking place.

Today, if a young person wants to contact a friend, or a stranger, they will still turn to the telephone but it will be their own mobile telephone, or a tablet or laptop. And the conversation, or digital interaction, will take place on social media, away from prying eyes and ears.

The plethora of platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat and the sites’ use of password protection means young people can engage in a series of conversations, interactions, visual exchanges and online relationships without their parents’ knowledge.

But what effect is the new world order having on the development of young people’s character and their perceptions of virtuous behaviour?

A new research project being undertaken by the Jubilee Centre seeks to examine the influence of social media and parents on children’s moral functioning in the second decade of the 21st century. We hope to find out more about the ability of young people, within an online context, to reason about moral issues, enact moral values such as empathy and honesty, and to develop a moral identity that encourages good character online.

Using three studies, conducted over 15 months, we will explore how social media impacts character and virtue and the ways in which parents seek to regulate children’s use of social media. It is often said that young people’s use of private messaging and the posting of selfies are out of control.

But are Instagram and Twitter really plunging children into a moral vacuum? And if they are, can parents adopt strategies to obviate the negative moral impacts of social media and protect the moral flourishing of young citizens?

The Centre has chosen to study social media because of its pervasive influence on young children and adolescents. According to Ofcom, 93% of 16 to 25-year-olds have a social media profile and the time spent using the platforms is spiralling. In 2005, 16-and-overs in the UK used social media 9.9 hours per week. By 2014, that has risen to 20.5 hours. (Ofcom, Adults’ Media Use and Attitudes Report 2015). The most popular channels are Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, WhatsApp and YouTube.

Depending on context and the reasons behind social media use, these popular platforms can spark positive or negative outcomes. It’s not just about the amount of time spent online; we need to know why young people go online. What do they want to get out of the experience?

Social media is another moral terrain that has to be navigated. It has pressures that can force users down the path of virtuous or vicious behaviours. Cases of cyberbullying and trolling, sometimes with tragic conclusions, show there is the potential for a lack of empathy with online behaviour. There are also links between certain types of social media use and narcissism.

An exploration of the nature of character and virtues on social media (including networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat) will look at two distinct classifications of online behaviours and motivations. First, there is self-presentation, exemplified by the cult of the selfie. This is a form of self-disclosure where the primary purpose is to gain attention, to show people who you are. Second, there is belongingness, where the motivation in social media participation is borne of a desire to communicate, to form social connections and seek out information about news and events.

The first of the project’s three studies will pilot new ways of measuring adolescents’ social media use and gather information on the strategies parents employ to regulate their children’s online activity. Questionnaires are being sent to participating schools and we hope to involve 1,000 students from the state and independent sectors, as well as a proportion of their parents.

One of the key investigations will centre on the ways in which parents seek to regulate their children’s social media use and see if regulation, or lack of it, affects young people’s online motivations and behaviours. The responses of children and adults to a range of scenarios are likely to shed light on parenting strategies.

Possible parental strategies might include limiting access to social media, for example, by saying: “I am restricting your iPad or phone use to 7 till 8 at night.” Alternatively, parents might monitor use by checking up on posts and the sites their children have visited. One strategy of particular interest is “pre-arming”, an active parenting strategy that involves the adult talking through how social media use might lead to conflicts in moral values. The strategy sees parents giving advice on how to deal with relevant issues.

Later studies will explore the relationship between adolescents’ social media use and their attitudes and behaviours concerning two moral values: empathy and honesty. This part of the project will explore potential discrepancies in how moral values are perceived or considered in the online and offline world.

The final stage of the project will bring the two previous parts of the research together, allowing the influence of parents on adolescents’ social media use and also the influence of adolescents’ social media use on their moral identity, empathy and honesty to be looked at together.

We hope the research project will allow us to publish evidence-based recommendations on social media use for schools and parents and widen understanding of the influence of Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat on young people’s moral development.

Dr Blaire Morgan, Research Fellow, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues


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