While we often hear about the negative impact social media has on children, the use of sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram is not a one-size-fits-all activity. Children use it in a wide variety of ways – some of which are adding value to their lives. There are risks associated with social media use but it's also important to understand where the value is, and how to guide children to get the most out of their time online.
Social media is a platform for sharing ideas, information and points of view. This can have important educational value: it extends the information young people can access while also giving them insight into how others think about and use that information.
For example, an Instagram image can give first-hand insight into how an artist today – or many artists around the world – interprets and applies Picasso's cubist technique. This insight makes the information about Picasso real for the child and support a deeper understanding of the topic.
With so many trending topics online, young people can be exposed to "insider" knowledge across many different subjects they are familiar with, as well as introducing them to new ones. Maximum educational benefit comes from combining factual information with shared reflection.
Research shows social media can have significant benefits for children with a medical condition. A dedicated online Facebook group can help kids connect with others who understand and relate to them.
One of the benefits of using Snapchat or Instagram is that the regular online connection can help to strengthen the friendships young people have formed offline. For those children who feel marginalised in their local community, social media can help them connect with other people who share the same interests or outlook on life.
An awareness of social media's benefits can help adults understand why technology is so attractive to young people, the potential positive uses of these online spaces, and how to talk to children about their social media use. Understanding and accepting that different generations use technology differently is a good starting point.
It provides opportunities for understanding each other as technology users, to be more aware of when issues arise, and how to guide children to positive and empowering uses of technology.
- Dr Joanne Orlando, School of Education, Western Sydney University