No longer easily dismissed as a fad, social media now saturates much of our lives and particularly the lives of our youth.  According to a 2015 report from the Pew Research Center, 92% of youth access the internet daily and almost a quarter of them admit to being “constantly online.”  While the negative impact of all this time online is well-documented, studies and ongoing research are showing that sometimes social media use can yield positive benefits.

At a recent cohort meeting of Get IN Chicago grantees, staff from Youth Advocate Programs (YAP), Inc shared how their mentors use social media to support mentoring efforts.  “We’ve found that Facebook is a good way to check in with the kids,” said Monique Robbins, Assistant Program Director at YAP. “The phone bill might not always get paid, but young people can always find wifi.”

“I find that Facebook messaging works better than texting,” added LaNita Reed, Youth Advocate at YAP.  “One main reason is that Facebook shows when a message has been read – so the kids know that I can see they’ve read my messages!  It keeps them responsive.”

Reed says connecting on social media gives her an opportunity to see what’s going on in her mentees’ lives, send notes of encouragement, and model positive social media behavior.  She tries to avoid badgering them, recognizing that the connection can be taken away with a swift ‘block’ if a youth no longer feels supported.

“It’s important to know which things are worth bringing up – they are kids after all. But sometimes you do need to check them on things,” she says. “For example, if I see a photo of someone gangbanging, I’ll bring it up in a non-Facebook conversation later and ask questions like, ‘Are you sure that’s how you want to represent yourself in the world?’”

MENTOR Illinois recommends that providers interested in using social media with youth create secondary profiles to maintain separation between their personal and professional lives. As a Roseland resident often seen around the neighborhood, Reed acknowledges that her situation is a little different. She admits that when her youth friend her on Facebook, it’s probably out of a curiosity to ‘see what Miss Reed has going on!’  But by accepting their request and connecting, she opens up a part of her life and makes mentees more comfortable sharing with her.

Using social media with youth might not work for everyone.  However, if you choose to utilize it in some way, keep in mind that a young person sharing their profile with you is ultimately a sign of trust – be genuine in your interactions and use your access to make a positive difference.

Service providers can also take stock of the following findings relating to social media – but remember that young people may need guidance to use online resources safely and effectively. 

  1. Social media can activate disengaged groups.  A 2012 study by researchers at Tulane University examined how the 2008 Obama campaign used social media to engage groups typically less active in politics, particularly young voters.  The authors used these findings to make recommendations for public health campaigns, which have similar goals of inspiring hard-to-reach populations to adopt new behaviors.  Their takeaway?  Simply sharing information isn’t enough; public health providers need to find ways to inspire engagement, active learning, and sharing through their networks.
  2. Social media creates community.  While no substitute for therapy or group work, online communities can support a sense of belonging.  The PostSecret community, which started in 2005 as a way for individuals to confess issues anonymously, now has over half a million Twitter followers who use the platform to converse and connect. Online forums or groups have the potential to give those grappling with disease, disorders, identity, and more a network of like-minded people.  
  3. Social media allows anonymous exploration of stigmatized topics.  A Pew Research study found that 30% of youth had used the internet to search for health information.  For topics that individuals might be too embarrassed to broach with even trusted friends or adults, the internet can be a place to gather information safely and explore available resources.