Literature review

Social media and the wellbeing of children and young people: a literature review

Social media Digital communications Child welfare Child mental health Australia

The review identified eight key domains of social media’s impact on children and young people: physical and mental health; identity and belonging; formal and informal learning; play and recreation; consumer practices; civic and political engagement; risk and safety; and, family and intergenerational relationships. Among other findings, the review has identified that positive and negative impacts are contextual and that social media:

  • Promote positive norms about health and wellbeing and enhances health promotion initiatives. The range of content and culture of social media provides low level exposure to a range of risks. However, experiencing some level or risk is necessary to build resilience online and offline. The rapidly increasing volume of information available online also opens up new questions about the sources and accuracy of information in the digital age.
  • Foster identity formation, community-building and creativity. Across these positive developmental processes, children and young people can also experience upsetting and potentially harmful content and practices which can have serious effects on their wellbeing.
  • Support the self-directed learning and aspirations of marginalised young people and extend formal and informal knowledge networks and social support for young people generally. However, poor integration of social media in formal and informal learning networks can reinforce social exclusion.
  • Provide new leisure, play and recreation spaces for children and young people. Online and video games in particular provide opportunities for learning, creativity, identity formation, socialisation, relaxation and stress relief. There are significant opportunities for the exploration (and development) of games that enhance wellbeing. Additional research is necessary to fully examine the range of concerns raised about online games.
  • Can positively influence the consumption patterns of children and young people by facilitating supportive networks and attitudes to financial wellbeing and empowering young people’s consumer and financial literacy. More research is required to understand the multiple influences from which harmful consumption practices can emerge.
  • Create new spaces for young people’s civic and political engagement by opening up opportunities for diverse forms of participation, self-expression – as well as creatively addressing social issues. While only a small minority of young people are considered to be at risk of radicalisation, social media can also be used to circulate politically extremist messages which, alongside other complex factors, can potentially lead to harmful practices.
  • Can amplify risks to physical and emotional safety but can also promote proactive approaches to issues of risk and safety that empower children and young people, develop their resilience and support their wellbeing.
  • Support family and intergenerational relationships that utilise different forms of expertise – including knowledge and skills of children and young people, peers, family and other adults – to promote safety, wellbeing and resilience. Also important to consider are the range of factors which influence children and young people’s social media use (such as where they are, what device they are using, what activity they are doing – and who they are with).  social media use (such as where they are, what device they are using, what activity they are doing – and who they are with). 
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