Social workers should seek to develop the digital resilience of young people in residential care, according to a University of East Anglia study.
The study by the university’s Centre for Research on the Child and Family examined the everyday use of social media by 10 adolescents in four residential care homes.
It concluded that social media use could deliver multiple benefits for young people in care, including helping them maintain healthy and appropriate relationships with their birth families and make the transition to independence easier.
“Our research reveals that social networks need to be viewed as an important resource for psychosocial support and that the risks shift as young people mature and progress towards independence,” said lead researcher Simon Hammond.
“Social work policy and practice needs to start to look at how connections created or maintained via social media can have benefits beyond the young peoples’ time in care. The longer-term view is vital, as the outcomes for young people do not stop once they leave care.”
The study, published in the British Journal of Social Work, found that digital networks allowed the young people to develop their social capital and build relationships that reduce their feelings of isolation, which can continue once they leave care.
It also found that the adolescents used social media to connect with organisations that could help with their personal progression, although they were reluctant to ‘like’ or ‘follow’ these organisations for fear of stigmatisation.
“We found that emotional support from people outside the care environment was very important,” said Hammond. “Keeping up to date with friends and, in some cases birth family members, about everyday life events really helped provide a sense of belonging and connectedness.”
Hammond recommended that social workers and carers take a ‘digital resilience’ approach and empower young people to navigate online risks instead of ‘naively’ trying to curtail online access. Adolescents should be supported to learn from mistakes they make online, he added.
“Communication via social media carries risks for all users,” said Hammond. “However, these risks do not stop their usage. Understandably from the perspective of staff at residential care homes, there was a lot of concern about how best to monitor internet use but we need to be engaged in this digital space to help protect society’s most vulnerable young people.”
Transition to adulthood
Social workers should recognise that developing young people’s ‘digital autonomy’ is an important part of the transition to adulthood, the report said.
The child protection charity the NSPCC said that while the study highlights some of the benefits, there remains a “responsibility on social media sites to make their platforms safe for their young users, including looked-after children who can often be particularly vulnerable, so that they are free to enjoy the online world”.