Character development and social media

Social media plays an increasingly significant role in the lives of the British public, with more and more of our lives played out and conducted online. This trend is particularly significant among young people, who spend on average more than a day a week on social media. This has been accompanied by a proliferation of concerns of the risks of online life to young people as both protagonists and victims: from hate speech to trolling, online grooming to radicalisation.

Alongside these developments, education policy makers and practitioners have been placing increasing emphasis on the importance of educating for character. Character education is not a recent development: it dates back to antiquity and Aristotle, and has formed a part of educational practice since then. Yet attention to its importance and deliberate practice is rapidly spreading through the English school system. Through policy research and programme evaluation, Demos has taken a leading role in making the social and economic case for developing students’ characters, and setting out how best it can be incorporated and embedded into the UK’s education system.

So far, however, there is limited understanding of how the widespread use of social media is affecting the character development of young people. As a result, the education system dedicates minimal time to the discussion of the civic and moral questions thrown up by the proliferation of social media, or to the provision of the skills young people need to be informed citizens and ethical decision-makers in this new context.

In a new research project, supported by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at the University of Birmingham, Demos is exploring the interrelationship between adolescent character development and social media use. By drawing on innovative research methodologies, including a thematic analysis of trolling events conducted by Demos’ Centre for the Analysis of Social Media, the study will assess how young people can be best prepared for the ethical challenges of the online world.