Social or anti-social networking sites? The potential risks of social networking sites to adolescents and their impact on individuals, schools and the educational process

Anne Rogerson



There can be no doubt that technological developments have revolutionised both learning and communication in the last two decades. Mobile phones and the Internet mean we are no longer dependent on either geographical location or time in order to communicate with our peers and colleagues. Such barriers are a thing of the past and these developments are to be heralded as a means of opening up gateways to improved communication and with that, hopefully, opportunities to develop learning. Information is readily available at the touch of the “search” button and we can share such information with whomsoever we choose – and there I believe is an underlying problem, which must be highlighted and addressed in an educational forum.

The very nature of ease of access can create problems for the vulnerable, especially the young. The use of social networking sites has the potential to create issues, for adolescents particularly, which impact on the individual, schools and ultimately on the educational process. My paper draws upon experience as headteacher of a secondary school in England, shared experiences with other colleagues, the lessons to be learned and suggestions for practices to be introduced in order that the negative effects of this powerful technology can be minimised, if not controlled. I submit below a skeleton of the format the paper would take.

Outline advantages of the technology, uses in schools

  • Improved information sources, (coursework research, statistical data, Google world for maps)
  • Encouraging active citizenship, (information about local services, volunteering opportunities, Youth Parliament)
  • Creating a global community, (links with schools/colleges abroad, sharing technology/experiences/practice)

Outline potential disadvantages

  • Access to inappropriate, potentially “corrupting” material
  • Use of social networking sites
  • Negative impact on social skills

It is on the latter that my paper is based. The use of such sites is not necessarily to be condemned for they can generate healthy discussions and help youngsters to formulate their opinions. However there is a darker side to the use of such sites. I believe this aspect needs to be examined on two fronts, namely when the participants are known to each other and secondly when they are not.

When correspondents know each other personally e.g. a group of friends in a tutor/class/year group; members of a youth/sports club

  • Comments can be made which are speculative and unsubstantiated – sometimes about third parties not involved in the initial exchange. The public nature of the networking site can give such allegations credibility, especially if others then add to the observations/comments. This can potentially cause distress which is brought into school the next day, leading to problems/allegations within the school community.
  • Such comments may lead the victim to feel isolated and is indeed a form of bullying. It is a particularly insidious form though. This is not the unkind note passed across the classroom to be intercepted by a teacher and dealt with at source. This is invasive, it is broadcast, it follows the child into his/her home, often into his/her own bedroom – and it must feel all pervasive to the young person. The impact this can have on a vulnerable adolescent is well documented

The second aspect occurs when the correspondent is not known, but a believable profile is created for the adolescent e.g. pre-pubescent girl believes she is “speaking” to a girl of similar age or boy believing he is in communication with a football enthusiast of contemporary age.

  • May lead to inappropriate requests (possible use of web cams)
  • May result in actual meetings based on the “trust” created by the networking site exchanges
  • Can lead to abuse of the minor (physical, emotional or sexual)

The examples will have case study illustrations and analyses.

Dependence on such sites as a form of interaction can lead to a loss of, or indeed failure to develop, inter-personal social skills, based on visual (facial expressions/body language) and auditory signals (tone of voice, volume, pace of delivery), and upon which social communication is built in the real world. I would suggest that an over dependence on social networking sites impoverishes the users and potentially places them at a disadvantage in the real world; unless of course technological innovation will have such a radical impact that the parameters and norms of social intercourse as we understand them today will virtually disappear!

The way forward-what can be done and by whom?

  • How can the risks be minimised?
  • Who are the “socially responsible” to ensure that “living beyond technology” is a reality for potentially vulnerable adolescents?
  • Examine the role of key players
    • Parents/carers What can be done in the home?
    • Schools/educational institutions What role for professional educators?
    • Social networking sites Is the provider to be held accountable?
    • Governments – a real issue


Over to you, the audience.