Research Roundup – Tech, Violence and Loneliness

13 Apr 2018

Our Research Officer takes a look at relationships between youths and technology.

Social Media and Violence

In the light of the recent escalation in serious violent crime in London, many have voiced concerns over the role that social media and technology have played, from Home Secretary Amber Rudd to Met Chief Cressida Dick, various MPs, and other commentators stressing a link between social media and violence. The links have also been shown to extend into drug trafficking and gang culture.

Much of this has been known for a while, and in December 2017 youth workers were highlighting that access to drugs and purchasing habits of drugs were changing as a result of e-marketing through social media.[1] The very real danger is that in a totally anonymous world of online trading there would be no ‘loyalty’ to customers from personal dealers, and thus purchasing of substances, which is already fraught with risk, becomes even less regulated by market players themselves, due to a lack of personal contact, and the choice of substances becomes ever greater.

The phenomenon of social media use fostering dangerous networks is not new; with renowned gang expert Dr Simon Harding suggesting that violence has been organised by social media since at least the riots of 2011, in which social media played a prominent role.[2] These findings were given parliamentary voice in November of that year by Heidi Alexander.[3] Importantly, Harding suggests that the underlying structural conditions of growing poverty and lack of access to meaningful jobs creates the conditions for violence, which social media provides a platform for. It is in this vein that social media and technology should be considered an ‘enabler’ of violent tendencies, rather than a sole cause.

Given the evident history but lack of activity on the point, there are welcomed calls for funding to educate youth workers on the links between social media and violence as part of a more modern and up-to-date approach to preventing violence.[4]

The issue is likely more pressing in the UK than in other OECD countries, with our young people and children using the internet at an earlier age, and for longer than average; these trends continue to rise.[5] However, it is not so simple an issue as limiting internet time; research has shown that whilst limiting a young person’s time and potential exposure to the internet can limit the chances of them experiencing online risk, it does not reduce the harm of those who do experience such risk.[6]

Exacerbating the risks are parents, who are often providing their children with phones and internet access at an earlier age; but a vast majority of whom are not regulating use, whether by time or by function.[7]

This potential problem is compounded further by the fact that regulation, or at the very least content and age restrictions, are not being enforced well enough by the digital and tech companies themselves.[8]

The most likely solution therefore seems to be to ensure that young persons have access to the internet so they can develop the skills to manage potential exposure to risks, but that this access should be supervised and managed. That it is generally not means that, in short, children and young people are having to figure out a whole world in which they are increasingly immersed, often in private spaces (such as their bedrooms), and without the adequate knowledge, experiences, support, skills or maturity levels to do so.

Social Media and Loneliness

Whilst the links between unhappiness and social media have been elaborated on previously (the basic premise being that overuse of social media can lead to increased levels of unhappiness; especially in young girls, and especially to do with body image), there is a growing sense of a connection between social media use and feelings of loneliness.[9] Both topics are seemingly high on the list of factors causing unhappiness amongst young people today, at least amongst commentators.[10] The growing recognition of loneliness as an area of need has received political exigency with the appointment of Tracy Crouch as Minister for Loneliness in January of this year, and a subsequent release of preliminary ONS findings this week, in which it is stated that 10% of children feel lonely, a greater proportion than expected.[11]

A key question in this conversation is whether social media use can help alleviate loneliness, or whether it exacerbates it. Certainly there is a direct association between the likelihood of mental health issues and excessive time spent on social media.[12] (Excessive time being considered as 3hrs + on a normal school day).

However, the mental health consequences associated with excessive social media use are varied and not yet fully understood, loneliness being but one amongst many.

The causes are similarly not fully understood and varied, and there is a growing body of literature that focuses on not just social media use, but overall screen time and exposure to all media (such as bedroom TVs) in general; the findings are that excessive screen time of any sort is consistently associated with reduced feelings of social acceptance, and increased feelings of loneliness, conduct problems and aggression.[13] As of yet, however, the focus has been on social media as the major technological driver behind anxiety and loneliness.

Such concern has been given voice with a recent research piece by The Children’s Society and Young Minds which, amongst many other findings, shows us that while many young people say social media helps them make friends, more than half, 56%, of young people have been excluded from conversations or groups on social media.[14] The report also calls for more research and understanding into another area that would likely contribute to feelings of loneliness; cyber-bullying. It is a distinct phenomenon which is growing and has a massive adverse effect on young people because of; the audience it can reach, the fact it is not limited by time or space, and the fact that many cyber-bullies create anonymous accounts through which they can target victims. This targeting has been acknowledged by some of the respondents to the research as being without censure, and which they would never say ‘in person’ or ‘to someone’s face’.

The simple fact is that we do not yet know if there is a connection, whether causal or coincidental, between young people who are experiencing loneliness as a distinct lack of physical and meaningful social connections; or whether their loneliness is a feeling that they are lonely in relative terms to others online who may have more ‘friends’, ‘followers’, ‘likes’ or ‘fans’.

For the former, a simple solution is evident and has been rightly voiced by the Times, bring back more funding for Youth Clubs, as places where social interactions can be made without being forced.[15] This would help provide spaces for those children who suffer neglect at home, are disabled, or come from families who cannot afford private clubs and activities.

For the latter, which is broadly put under the term FOMO (‘fear of missing out’), more work in needed akin to a November 2017 study by Action for Children.[16] In this, there is an understanding that whilst social media can help alleviate some forms of loneliness, it also identifies a risk that some lonely people can further isolate themselves in an online world. The issue may be that once such feelings of loneliness are manifest, it is increasingly unlikely that an individual will reach out to others to help counteract them.

However, for all the conjecture and possibilities the research on causes of, and effective interventions to, loneliness and social isolation in children and young people is in its infancy. It is an area of need that has been highlighted and will grow.

The case for looking at loneliness in isolation

Whilst there has rightly been shock, and many calls for action to tackle an apparent increase in loneliness amongst young people, we should be slightly wary of not ignoring the fact that this is not a new phenomenon. Indeed, there is a danger of conflating social media, technology and loneliness as wholly intertwined. However, it may also be beneficial to assess each as independent variables. The reasoning behind being that there has been a long line of literature that has developed an accepted discourse of how perceptions and experiences of loneliness change with age. The basic thesis is that feelings of loneliness amongst young people are nothing new, and in fact are a part of our natural development.

However, given that these findings have largely been developed prior to social media and/or the internet as an accepted social norm, this discourse may need updating in the light of modern changes in the way we interact with each other.

The established narrative of experiences and situations that have been considered as defining characteristics of loneliness across age groups can be summarised in 3 main trends as follows[17];

Individual Peer Friendships

  • In early childhood loneliness is primarily felt via a lack of peer friendships, with common activities and proximity to peers the major determining factors.
  • In later childhood a growing emphasis is placed on social connections that are characterised by; validation, understanding, empathy and self-disclosure.
  • This trend of more intimate qualities to friendships has been argued to progress through adolescence to incorporate intimacy.

Peer Groups

  • In early childhood belonging to a ‘group’ has not been seen as being of importance
  • By later childhood the concern with belonging to a group increases.
  • In adolescence, an individual’s status within that group is of concern alongside having a close friend and a romantic partner.
  • In later adolescence a concern with building and developing a higher-quality romantic relationship emerges.

Changes in the physiological and physical self

  • Major physical and physiological changes have been shown to affect the way people think of themselves as individuals, and of themselves in relation to others. There are two main ages in life where this is relevant; adolescent puberty, and decreasing mobility as a result of age. (Of course, the effects of disability should not be discounted and can affect all ages)

Were we to take all of these together then the established literature suggests that feelings of loneliness and / or isolation are most likely to be found in those around the age of puberty; where the combined effects of being highly concerned with social validation and personal intimacy (i.e. at the crossing point between valuing quantity and quality of relationships) play out alongside a disruptive period of existential discovery and physiological changes; and in the transition towards old age, where mobility and mental insecurity often increases, alongside the loss of lifelong close friendships, family and partners.

A further problem that has been shown to heighten feelings of loneliness in young people to a greater extent than adults is what could be termed ‘social maturity’; the basic premise is that if the above indicators of individual and social acceptance are not met, and loneliness is felt, then very lonely children have trouble disengaging from the perceived negatives of the scenario, and therefore are more likely to ‘feel’ lonely; but very lonely young adults have a practiced avoidance of such ‘feelings’ and instead consider it a ‘norm’. The potential problems of not tackling loneliness at a young age is therefore that it may become chronic and accepted as the norm by an individual who is almost de-sensitised to the situation, making it harder to break the maladaptive cognitive biases that increase overtime (e.g. distrusting others, lower self-esteem, etc.). This creates a self-reinforcing loop which may be hard to measure as the self-evident indicators are read differently by the individual. In such surveys as prompted the ONS figures it may be that adults are less prepared to identify themselves as lonely.

Recent research conducted by the Coop Foundation also highlights different drivers of loneliness across multiple levels; individuals themselves, individuals connections, community, and finally societal.

It is thus that any further research should keep this existing accepted discourse in mind, and assess how and whether social media and technology use has altered these assumptions for a fuller understanding of any connectedness between these areas, and across different age groups. To not do so may mean that important factors that could contribute to best outcomes may be missed, and ultimately the effectiveness of interventions and preventions could be compromised as a result.