Digital technologies have changed the ways in which we relate to each other, work and play, and might have even altered who we are. These changes are happening rapidly. The online and offline world are starting to feel interconnected, especially for children and young people, who have grown up surrounded by these technologies. The Northern Ireland Child Care Research Forum dedicated their conference this year to this topic. Important issues covered included online safety, abuse and bullying, and the advantages and risks to using digital technologies. This made me reflect what these technologies mean for the young people in this study, who either have spent their childhoods in foster or kinship care, have been adopted from care, have been cared mostly by their birth parents, or have been in and out of care. There are different topic areas that can be considered here: one is about the effects of social media on looked after children and young people’s contact with their birth families; another linked to this would be the effects of social media on adopted young people’s searching (for their birth families); and the last one is about the general use by these children and young people of digital technologies in terms of forming and maintaining relationships with others, as well as the related risks of bullying, grooming and sexual exploitation, and fraud.
In this post, I am going to focus on children’s general use of digital technologies (especially in terms of their relationships), and present some findings from the previous phase of the study. According to a recent study, care experienced children and young people use digital media, just in the same way as their peer group, in order to maintain/develop their offline relationships, and enlarge social networks and social support. Although the majority of those interviewed had received some form of online verbal abuse from other young people they knew, these experiences were not more negative than wider peer experience, and “the underlying issues of friendship, chat, group membership and group exclusion appear similar to those which marked relationships in a pre-digital age.”
In 2009, we asked children aged 9 to 14 (who were in care at a young age, and were then either fostered, living with birth family, adopted or subject to a residence order) to tell us about the activities they did in their spare time. Digital media featured heavily in their answers, particularly social media and texting. Some also mentioned MSN, email, Skype; and a huge proportion spent a lot of their spare time gaming. Some children were particularly addicted to this type of activities, while others found social media either “boring” (and “not that fun”), or even dangerous, with a few explaining the dangers and risks involved:
“Not that (Bebo), Social Services don’t let me. Yeah, because they think it’s dangerous. They don’t let, like they put like a wee protection thing in our computer and you’re not allowed to go in… Just in case somebody gets on to Bebo or something and finds out where you live and that.” (11-year-old girl in foster care)
“I’m getting one (Bebo page), but no, I have one. Someone hacked it. Someone had my password and logged into it…” (12-year-old boy living with birth mum)
A few explained they were not “allowed”, but one child adopted by foster carers admitted to be using it nevertheless. Others, while being aware of the risks, they took measures to be able to use it regardless of those.
“… but mine (my Bebo page) is private, because it’s only for my cousins and stuff… My close friends, yeah.” (12-year-old in kinship care)
The children who were going often on to social media (in particular Bebo, only one child had Facebook instead of Bebo) explained what they found good about it, i.e. staying in touch with their friends.
“See I can, like at the summer and all we don’t get to see them [school mates], you can talk over and all on it.” (11-year-old boy subject to a Residence Order)
“Because all my friends are on it, and I have friends… whenever I used to go to my primary school, but they go to a school that is far, so I talk to them on it.” (13-year-old girl living with birth dad)
The children mostly texted their friends, and sometimes their carers and families too, but not as much.
“I text my friends all the time … I say ‘what’s the craic?’ and then they text me back ‘nothing, how’s the craic with you?’” (12-year-old adopted girl)
“I text every day. I love texting. … Because I just text my friends and… I just like texting. There’s nothing else to do” (13-year-old girl living with birth dad)
Obviously, digital technologies have moved on quite significantly since 2009, with the rise of the smart phones and the tablets, bringing social media, internet access and gaming at our finger tips on a non-stop basis. So, these tendencies we saw in 2009 have probably intensified and been altered as the children grew into young adults. How have they been using digital media since then? What do they find are the risks and the benefits of social media, in their experience? It will be interesting to find out when we interview them again.