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The moral web: youth character, ethics and behaviour on social media

Social media has moved from the periphery to the mainstream of public consciousness at a rapid pace, with close to 100 per cent of 16–24-year-olds now having a social media account. From being considered a relatively trivial and narcissistic aspect of online communication, social media is increasingly seen as socially and politically transformative – shaping human interaction from the micro level of individual relationships to the macro level of public discourse and, even, electoral outcomes. As with many disruptive technologies, social media’s novelty and pervasiveness has thrown up a host of moral and ethical questions as longer-standing social norms struggle for purchase in new environments that simultaneously accelerate and distance human interaction.

Public anxiety around the impact of social media is arguably strongest in relation to the developmental impacts of young people’s experiences on social networking sites. As the earliest and heaviest adopters of the technology, adolescents seem most drawn to social media, at a stage in life when they are most open to developmental influence, and most prone to risk-taking and peer-led behaviour. Understandably parents, school leaders and policy makers feel compelled to intervene to minimise these new sources of risk and harm. This has led policy makers to focus on online safeguarding, aiming to minimise extrinsic risks from radicalisation (eg the Prevent duty in schools) and other forms of abuse, as well as preventing young people from accessing harmful material through filtering and monitoring. Parents are similarly often drawn into restrictive strategies, which attempt to reduce or limit access to online social networks.

While these strategies may have merits, they run up against a number of practical and sociocultural problems. From a practical perspective, the nature of social media technologies make traditional forms of regulation difficult – for example, constant connectivity through smartphones means that young people are regularly online outside spaces of parental mediation. There’s also a danger that overly intrusive interference into young people’s digital worlds – seen as spaces of youth and peer independence – becomes counterproductive, limiting the development of digital experience and/or encouraging more covert online behaviour.

Responding to this impasse, this study examines young people’s agency in their engagement with social networking sites. Rather than focusing on how to regulate the digital environment that surrounds young people, we aim to understand how young people act on social media, and crucially what motivates them to act in the ways that they do. To do this we take character as our frame of analysis – the personal traits, values and skills that guide individual conduct, and ultimately shape outcomes in school and in wider life. While Demos has built up a significant body of work looking at the impact of character in the offline world, supporting educational, and mental and physical health outcomes, an analysis of what constitutes good character online is a new frontier for research.

Our study takes a particular interest in the moral and civic aspects of character, mapping the prevalence of risky and unethical behaviours on social media, while also assessing engagement prosocial behaviours, and displays of civic virtue. We use a scenario-based approach to drill deeper into young people’s online reasoning, to understand what drives their behaviour, and unearth emergent peer-led codes of conduct. Finally, we ask what key stakeholders – schools, parents and social media companies – can do to support positive youth decision making.