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.

In this research project, Demos explores 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 assesses how young people can be best prepared for the ethical challenges of the online world.

Demos’ research finds:

  • Social media creates opportunities for young people to display moral and civic virtues, and acts of courage that counter online abuse.
  • However, a quarter of 16-18 year-olds say they have engaged in cyberbullying or trolling on social networking sites, with boys and frequent social media users more likely to say they have done this.
  • Young people were more likely to choose a positive course of action, although a substantial minority said they would do nothing if they saw someone being bullied online.
  • Young people are attuned to moral situations over social media, although gender appears to be a significant factor in influencing levels of moral sensitivity.
  • There’s evidence of there being an implicit code of conduct among many young people, which fosters action in response to significant harm inflicted on close friends, but engenders the response ‘it’s not my business’ to becoming involved in anything beyond this.
  • There is a link between character and online behaviour and decision making.
  • Despite the chronic lack of evaluative evidence on what is effective in helping young people make healthy choices on social media, digital citizenship is a promising approach to support healthy choices on social media.

The full report, including policy recommendations, can be downloaded here.

For more information about the project, please contact Peter Harrison-Evans:
[email protected].