Learning to be smart about social media use

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A short course that aims to help young people to respond to the pressures of social media and to avoid online dangers is showing itself to be effective in changing attitudes.

Designed by Flinders social work academic Dr Mubarak Rahamathulla in conjunction with Marion Youth, the 90-minute course, Smart Social Networking, uses participatory discussions as its primary method in bringing about changes in behaviour among 10 to 17 year old users of social media sites.

Dr Rahamathulla said that research has shown that social media has become a source of pressure on children and adolescents, with many young users feeling obliged to respond to online postings by their friends as soon as possible, day and night. It is also common, Dr Rahamathulla said, for an individual’s total number of online friends to be used as a gauge of popularity.

With social media use frequently climbing above three hours a day, less time is available for other activities, from homework to family contact to sleep. Of even greater concern, Dr Rahamathulla said, is risky online behaviour that includes the posting of personal material and images, and the exchange of physical addresses or passwords.

“Nothing is private once it has been posted on the internet, and much of the course is directed at getting young people to understand the possible consequences of their activities,” he said.

Dr Rahamathulla said the course challenged assumptions by raising issues and scenarios for discussion by groups of participants. The course modules, which can be tailored to the needs of a given group, also cover areas such as cyberbullying and how social media sites make money.

Dr Rahamathulla said it was apparent that many young social media users did not consider the implications of their activities, showing a lack of awareness of the permanency of posts, the potential audience enabled by technology or how a posting can be used for purposes other than originally intended.

“Once you put it out there, you have no control over what happens to it,” he said.

Dr Rahamathulla said the consequences of self-posting embarrassing photographs, for instance, including possible long-term effects on future employment, were often ignored.

“Something posted in confidence to your 40 friends can reach more than 100,000 people through friend networks within hours, and can remain online forever.”

Dr Rahamathulla said the course had shown that peer discussion was an effective method of airing the issues and changing behaviour: surveys conducted before and after the course showed a greater awareness of privacy and security issues among the participants and an increased sense of caution about use of social media.

“Part of the success comes from the fact that the groups don’t feel that they are being told what to do by adults – they learn by exchanging experiences and supporting each other,” he said.

With the course successfully trialled, Dr Rahamathulla is keen to make it available to as many interested community organisations as possible for a nominal cost.

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