In a guest blog for the Ending Youth Violence Lab authors of Against Youth Violence: A Social Harm Perspective Luke Billingham and Keir Irwin-Rogers discuss the need for a comprehensive and nuanced examination of the link between social media and youth violence. This blog, published on Safer Internet Day, sets up the need for and introduces the EYV Lab Social Media Research Framework.
Violence is among the most contentious issues in British public policy. In the past decade or so, a new controversy has arisen, adding to the fervour of the debate: the potential connections between violence and social media. Does social media facilitate, exacerbate, accelerate, intensify, or increase the violence we are seeing, especially on the streets of major cities, and especially between young people?
Frankly, the debate around these questions is not always fruitful. Rather than weighing in on any particular substantive issue, in this blog we seek to explore why it is such a knotty problem, what is at stake for those involved, and what kinds of solutions are possible.
The debate about violence and social media is so messy because it relates to a number of polarised issues. We’ve listed some of these in extreme terms below – linking to articles that demonstrate the point.
- Technology will lead us to utopia vs. technology will lead us to hell
- The world is getting more and more violent vs. the world is achieving unprecedented levels of peace
- Gangs are a terror on our streets vs. ‘gangs’ are little more than an often-racist social and political construct
- Harmful speech and content must be curtailed vs. total freedom of expression must be protected
- New forms of music popular among young people are uniquely and unprecedentedly violence-inducing vs. every generation has its overblown musical moral panic
- Social media is enabling new and rich forms of connection vs. social media is destroying young people’s mental health
- Social media will always be an anarchic and ungovernable space vs. we can carefully monitor and regulate social media to minimise its potential harms
Among these issues are different epistemological, moral, political and empirical points of contention. There is disagreement about trends in violence, about which kinds of people and groups cause violence, about the state’s role in policing online content, and about the effects of media on their audiences, for instance.
Drawing together many of these different components, it is possible to sketch two opposed, caricatured positions on the issue of social media and violence:
- Social media has created a new, currently unmanageable, problem in relation to violence, making it far worse. Organised gangs use social media to groom young people into illicit drug markets and violence, to goad rivals, to desensitise people to violence, to encourage a general attitude of callous maliciousness, to intensify conflicts, and to arrange the logistics of violent encounters. All of this has significantly changed youth culture and the lifestyles that young people lead, for the worse. Through social media, violence is celebrated, glorified, and thereby exacerbated in reality. Thus we need a rigorous state response, involving both intensive monitoring of social media, removal of harmful content, and punishment for those who are posting it.
- Social media has merely fed into existing moral panics about violence, often centred around mythological and racist images of marauding ‘gangs’ on the streets. In fact, it has made a negligible difference to the extent and nature of violence. The kinds of social, economic, psychological and political factors which have always precipitated violence – since long before social media – continue to do so. Scrambling to restrain social media is a futile distraction from the real problems generating violence, as well as raising significant ethical questions about privacy and freedom of expression.
The whole debate pivots, then, around one fundamental, question: what difference does social media really make to violence? Or, in other words, what has changed and what has stayed the same about street-based interpersonal violence since social media became ubiquitous in young people’s lives? Too often, this question is obscured.
This debate is made all the more complicated by the variety of groups, organisations, and relationships involved, each with their own interests, concerns, needs and wishes. This includes:
- Young people, in our experience generally eager to be free and creative in how they use social media, and how they interact with peers, whilst often being keenly aware of risks or dangers they may face. Many are expert in circumventing any restrictions placed on their internet or social media access.. In our work, we’ve seen huge diversity in young people’s opinions on social media – some feeling it makes their lives worse, others viewing it as something they couldn’t live without.
- Parents, who want their children to be safe and happy. Generally concerned about what their children are exposed to, and how that’s influencing them, whilst eager to balance this with respecting their privacy and independence. Often struggling to keep up with the apps their children are using, and how they can or should be monitored.
- Social media companies, eager to maintain reputation, popularity, engagement and profits, with varying degrees of sincere concern for cultivating safety on their platforms.
- Police, eager to improve their ability to predict when, where and how violence may occur, as well as to maintain sufficient funding and legitimacy, particularly for new and fast-changing areas of activity, such as social media monitoring.
- Politicians, eager to (be seen to) have a ‘hold’ on the issue of violence, and to (be seen to) be effective in reducing the harm it causes.
- Professionals working with young people, eager to ensure that their support remains relevant to young people’s cultures and lifestyles, and to remain cognisant of different risks young people may be facing.
- Activists, some keen to shield young people from heightened monitoring, surveillance, and curtailment of freedom and privacy, others keen to protect them from perceived risks to their mental and physical health.
- Researchers, with a genuine interest in discovering new insights about social media and violence, but also incentivised by the pressure to win funding for novel, ‘trendy’ kinds of studies, and to produce attention-grabbing findings, particularly when looking at contentious issues such as violence.
Thus discussions about this issue in policy, the media and in academia are influenced by a range of different incentives and pressures that affect the various stakeholders involved. Acknowledging this helps avoid any simplistic idea that this is a matter of the police versus young people, or of social media companies versus politicians.
Responses: Policies, programmes, protocols and practices
If it can be assumed that, in some way, social media has had some influence on the issue of violence, the question is raised of how best to respond. A wide array of activities can be, and are, undertaken by all of the players listed above to in some way intervene in, understand, or address the relationship between social media and violence. These range from programmatic interventions, to training courses for both professionals and parents, to government policies, to social media company protocols, to youth work practice, to policing approaches. Each comes with their own advantages and disadvantages, as well as their own practical, epistemological, ethical, and political connotations. Again, acknowledging this diversity of response can help avoid over-simplification – it is not just a matter of respecting freedom of expression or shutting down certain social media channels; there’s a far wider discussion to be had about different courses of action that can and should be taken.
In summary, then, debate around social media and violence is in its infancy. Too often, unhelpful and sweeping statements are made about social media and violence. These statements typically lack nuance about the myriad of players involved in and affected by this issue, about the numerous and varied policies, programmes, protocols and practices in operation or development, and/or about the degree of uncertainty that currently characterises our collective understanding of social media and violence. Young people’s use of social media will continue to be a major feature of their lives, and the social media platforms and activities available to them are ever-changing.
In this context, it is important to think carefully, systematically and with a wide lens about this topic, not least to guard against the possibility of purported solutions generating more harm than good. For all these reasons and more, there is a clear need for a programme of sophisticated, multi-disciplinary research on this issue and so we welcome the publication of the Ending Youth Violence Lab’s research framework, and we encourage researchers, practitioners and funders to engage in much needed work on this topic.