In late 18th Century England, public concern over Imperial wars in America, India, and Europe, was matched by a growing fear of an altogether more insidious problem developing at home - the increasing mass consumption of novels!
'My sight is every-where offended by these foolish, yet dangerous, books [...] I have actually seen mothers, in miserable garrets, crying for the imaginary distress of an heroine, while their children were crying for bread' - The Sylph no. 5, October 6, 1796: 36-37
For critics of this trend (which gained pace after the publication of Samuel Richardson's Pamela in 1740), novels were seen as both psychologically and physiologically harmful: warping ideas of life and relationships, while also damaging readers eyesight and posture.
Fast forward a few hundred years, and this debate has echoes of current consternation around social media - albeit with the main focus of that concern moving from 'ladies', 'mistresses', and 'belles' to today's young people. Look through any national newspaper and you're likely to find at least one shocking story of abuse or crime linked to social networking sites.
However, while the tone of the debate on social media may have similarities to the novel-reading panic of the 18th Century, public anxiety in the contemporary case is backed up by empirical evidence. The NSPCC has, for instance, reported a doubling of Childline calls related to cyberbullying between 2012 and 2016, and a recent report by the OECD classified 37% of British 15-years olds as 'extreme internet users', significantly above the international average (26%).
At Demos, in our upcoming report 'The Moral Web', we've focused on understanding how young people act on social media, and what motivates their decision-making. We found that a quarter of 16-18 year olds admit to bullying or abusing someone over social media, with many saying that they feel drawn into negative behaviour due to the visibility of communication, leading to a need to be seen 'to act tough'.
The public response to moral panics of the past is generally to look to prohibit or restrict access the object of 'vice' or censor content deemed particularly harmful. In her analysis of the novel-reading panic of the 1700s, Ana Vogrinčič, finds evidence of significant attempts to 'thwart their spread and restrain novel reading'. However, she argues that these attempts often proved counterproductive (in this case increasing public attention given to this literary form).
Again, there are parallels to our current predicament. Much of the contemporary policy response has so far focused on online safeguarding, social media companies are under increasing public pressure to 'do more' to remove harmful content, and schools and parents often get drawn into attempts to limit access to smartphones, and reduce screen time.
While all worthwhile endeavours, there are both practical and social limits to solely restrictive approaches. From a practical perspective, the nature of social media technologies makes 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 becomes counterproductive, encouraging more covert online behaviour, as well as limiting positive developmental opportunities.
Our research for instance found that while a significant minority of young people engaged in abusive behaviour, social media provided the majority with opportunities for honest and empathetic communication (88% said they had given emotional support to a friend over social media) and civic and political engagement (51% had posted about political or social causes).
So how to address the legitimate concerns that underpin public anxiety? Our research finds that young people's character and social and emotional skills are important in shaping how they think and act on social media. Traits of empathy and self-control were, for example, found to be particularly closely linked to reduced likelihood of engaging in bullying behaviour online.
It's here that we feel policy-makers, schools, and parents can make the biggest difference - empowering young people to make a positive contribution to their online communities by building their social digital skills, together with those wider character traits which guide and shape behaviour.
Some may fear that this is letting regulators and social media companies 'off the hook'. However, we argue that social media companies should be doing more, but this doesn't just mean growing content moderation teams, and building more complex content-removal algorithms. It also means leveraging the power of their networks to promote prosocial behaviour, for instance, by giving youth charities free advertising space to engage young people on issues linked to digital citizenship.
Approaches such as these can help our young people to become more thoughtful and engaged citizens when they're online. In doing so we can address legitimate public concerns, as well as helping to calm the 'social media panic' of the early 21st Century.
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