Online Lives

In this section, you’ll find:

1. Is there such a thing as 'Digital Natives'?

Young people born after 1987 are often called ‘digital natives’. They have never known a non-Internet world and make little distinction between online and offline. There is one world, with online and offline aspects. Some ‘offline’ relationships translate to ‘online’ contexts, some do not – and vice versa. This can be confusing.

When we understand how young people interact, we can help them address risk as well as foster aspiration and achievement. We need to think about how digital tools, communities and relationships impact young people’s lives, mental health and wellbeing.

The main drawback to the digital natives idea is the presumption that all young people are fully skilled and equipped to navigate the online world.  In reality, many young people need significant help in making safe and effective use of the digital world, or in overcoming barriers to use.  This includes young people with low general literacy levels and some young people with disabilities. Practitioners need to become familiar with ways of supporting online skills and knowledge development as part of efforts to promote young people’s mental wellbeing. These issues are discussed further in the Digital Citizenship page, in particular iRights and #notwithoutme.

“In my fieldwork, I often found that teens must fend for themselves to make sense of how technologies work and how information spreads. It is dangerous to assume that youth are automatically informed.”

It’s Complicated – Danah Boyd, Researcher and Author, Microsoft, 2014 

We must bridge the digital and non-digital, we are not yet at a point where digital is universal. However, there is a risk of reverse inequality that if we fail to recognise people who want to use digital to engage.

2. What about you?

Think of a typical day or week. What online technologies did you use? Did you log in Facebook? Use email? Text? What were you trying to achieve when you use these technologies? Communicate with people? Get some help? Entertainment?…

The next section covers young people’s types of relationships and contexts. We’ve tried to highlight where they relate to mental health.

3. Keep in Touch

Using technologies to keep in touch is the obvious starting point but let’s go further.

Young people told us that the third space (i.e. not home or school/work) was very important to them. For many, it’s a digital space. Young people enjoy being present online even when they don’t participate; it’s about being able to access and take in others comments. Social media also helps  keep in touch with friends, those further away geographically or in hospital. They can use closed groups to keep to people they trust.

Tools like FaceTime and Skype offer free video calls on computers and mobile devices anywhere in the world. The tech is amazing for keeping in touch but we need to be mindful that content may not be as private as we think: it can be saved, shared, sold or hacked into; location can be guessed. We discuss privacy and data sharing issues in the Risks and Vulnerabilities chapter.

4. Meet Like-Minded People

“The Internet is a great place to meet people, establish an online identity and talk about the things you love.”

Young Scot, Joining an Online Community

With the rise of online technologies, many young people use apps, forums, blogging platforms and sites of interest to find a hobby, meet like-minded people and find somewhere to fit in. There are many ways to connect with people who like the same things and have similar experiences. Online communities can offer help and support too.

Digital helps reduce the geographical or physical barriers and break down isolation. Online communities can also help develop transferable skills around communication, leadership and technical skills.

However, strangers are still strangers. We all need to understand privacy settings and how we share identifiable information. It is important to help young people develop the ability to safely engage and potentially meet others. You shouldn’t assume that all meetings are dangerous. More on the risks here.

5. Give And Receive Support

Helping others feels good, especially when your experience is useful to others. It’s brilliant to feel there is someone out there who ‘gets you’ even if that’s anonymous and to have a ‘safe place’ to talk, online or offline. An insight of the Project 99 report was how much young people support each other.

Most peer support tools have moderation and guidelines about triggering content (e.g descriptions of abuse or self-harm which are usually hidden so people don’t stumble over them). It is important that trusted adults provide young people with a space to discuss what they have come across online. It is easy to come across or deliberately seek the dark web for example.

Peer support can help develop empathy as long as it’s not at the cost to your own wellbeing, so it is important to self-manage your exposure to others’ distress. It is key to know where to go for support and emergency help if needed.

Some people prey on vulnerable young people. They may be keen to please, or be desperate to be loved, wanted or validated. This can lead to risky behaviours which should be discussed.

6. Create and Share

The Internet allows creative communities to find themselves and connect people with similar interests across the globe. Users can collaborate, share content and receive feedback from their peers. Youth Net found that young men in particular liked to curate music playlist to share their feelings. For some, this creative process can even turn into a career.

Young people need an awareness to manage this creative freedom. What do they know about copyright and intellectual property – in particular in relation to downloading and sharing pirated content? How would they feel if the content went viral?

7. Dating and Intimate Relationships

A lot of people now meet their partners via online dating, not just young people. There are tools even designed for young people. Social media is the new ‘pub’ for flirting for all ages but there are understandable concerns about whether people you talk to are actually who they say they are. There are concerns about privacy as content can be shared, revealed or misused. It’s important that we understand online dating/flirting so we can equip young people to safely do what many will do anyway.

Teen Voices – Dating in the Digital Age is an insightful resource to guide young people. The Pew Research Centre worked with over 100 teens in the US to understand their experiences of social media and romantic relationships.

Young Scot Do’s and Don’t of Online Dating has some useful advice to keep young people safe and conscientious.

8. Gaming

The social aspect of gaming is important to highlight: we know from speaking to young people that connected gaming is a key way in which some retain contact with social groups and make friends.

Social and immersive games such as Massively Multiplayer Role Play Games (e.g. World of Warcraft) can be associated with problematic Internet use. Escapism can be positive in terms of exploring identity, but negative escapism, i.e. ‘disappearing’ into the game to avoid dealing with challenges in the ‘real world’ can be a concern.

As with most areas of digital use, it is important to understand a young person’s gaming, so as to be able to guide appropriately and from a position of understanding.

Further reading: gaming and mental health in the Project 99 report.

9. Experiment With Identity

Young people have always experimented with their identities through clothing, appearance, music and sub-cultures.

The Internet allows young people to experiment more freely, meet, discover more and more quickly. This may have a positive effect, for example in enabling young LGBT people or young people with long-term conditions to connect with peers, especially if they are isolated geographically or socially. The drawback is that unhelpful ideas and behaviours easily go viral.

The Internet has also added a new dimension to the long-standing problem of peer pressure – with selfies for example.

We need to be aware that all media content can become public and stay public well into adulthood. Digital citizenship needs to include awareness of personal brand online and exposure may cause distress.

10. Campaign and Activism

The Internet offers new avenues for young people interested in campaigning and taking up causes they believe in:

  • Citizen journalism offers people a voice and a role in society, which can be effective and empowering. Sites like Upworthy make it easy to share compelling content on social issues.
  • Campaigns like ‘It Gets Better LGBT Rights’ reach millions of young people at risk of poor mental health. Political discussions such as the election of President Obama and the referendum on Scottish independence galvanise young people into action.
  • Charities such as Fixers and Young Scot support young people who wish to bring change in their communities and amongst peers.

It is a good space to develop the skills to evaluate content for reliability and appropriateness, looking for the source of the content.

11. Buy and Sell

You can buy and sell almost anything on the Internet. Online auction sites like eBay are useful to value objects and are relatively straightforward and safe to use. Other sites such as Gumtree operate like traditional small ads with exchanges in person – so normal caution applies. Sites such as Etsy or DeviantArt can allow users to trade artwork or crafts, which can be validating.

Young people have always found ways to buy contraband or illegal material, legal or illegal highs, laxatives or stimulants (in eating disorders for example). Adults have always tried to understand, notice and address this. The Internet simply broadens the access.

12. Reminder

Aye Mind does not offer direct support for mental health issues and is not continuously monitored for messages. If you need an ambulance, call 999. If you or someone around you is in distress or need immediate help, click here to find a list of services you can talk to.

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