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Social networking is one of the main reasons Australians access the internet today (ABS 2018). While social media is ostensibly helpful and beneficial for maintaining our relationships, its use has been linked to loneliness, anxiety, depression and even a decrease in our social skills (Kross & colleagues 2013). Promisingly, Baker & Oswald found that social media can have a positive impact on people’s perceptions of friendship and can provide social support for people who identify as shy (2010). In particular, single parents and those living alone are more likely to report dissatisfaction with offline relationships and therefore rely on social media to connect (Zeleznikow 2018). In romantic relationships, Zeleznikow found that ‘friending’ or ‘following’ one’s partner online can have a positive outcome for relationship satisfaction (2018). Ultimately, the effect social media has on our health and relationships is complex and difficult to generalise.
Most teenagers have grown up with access to the internet and social media. As such, they fear losing access to this digital environment (Australian Communications and Media Authority 2018). Further, social media use is closely interwoven with children’s sense of self and community and allows them to express their creative practices in novel ways (Lim 2013).
Yet the prevalence of cyberbullying poses parenting challenges. The Parenting in the Digital Age report found that 46% of parents feel confident dealing with any cyberbullying their child may face (Australian Communications and Media Authority 2018). However, traditional media research has found that despite parent’s confidence, incumbent fears can lead guardians to engage in harmful monitoring and restriction of the child’s digital media (Valkenburg et al., 1999). Thus, it is important that both the parent and child develop a level of trust and understand how to engage in safe digital activity.
While social media use poses challenges, as it becomes increasingly embedded within the way we communicate, it is important for children to learn how to use it safely. Similarly, parents should recognise the significant role it plays as an expressive, educational and social tool. Active mediation, which involves discussions about the media young people are consuming, has the potential to mitigate possible negative outcomes (Austin et al., 1990). While these studies are based on television use, the approach can be applied to social media. Further, similar studies have found that applying the concept of participatory learning, where parents and child interact together with and through digital media, could be another useful strategy for dealing with social media use.
Previous research finds that…
- The Parenting Research Centre found that 70% of parents felt their child spent too much time using electronic devices (2017).
- Up to 80% of Relationships Australia practitioners have counselled clients who have concerns about the impact of Facebook on their relationships (Relationships Australia Victoria 2011)
- Teens go online using a suite of devices and all times of the night; 52% access the internet with two different devices and 30% with three devices. 28% of teens access the internet between 10pm and midnight, while 8% access the internet between midnight and 7am (Australian Communications and Media Authority 2011).
Due to the age of some of this research, it is reasonable to assume that these numbers have increased. Like all technology, social media use transforms rapidly and it is hard to produce research that keeps pace. As such, Relationships Australia conducted a survey in October 2019 to capture how people feel about their own, their partner’s and their children’s use of social media today.
799 people responded to the Relationships Australia October 2019 survey on the impact social media has on your relationships. 71% of our respondents were women, 23% men and three percent did not state their gender or chose ‘other’ (figure 1). As for previous surveys, the demographic profile of respondents is consistent with our experience of the groups of people that would be accessing the Relationships Australia website.
Figure 2 demonstrates that a majority (82%) of respondents use social media every day, either several times a day (65%) or at least once a day (17%). Only five percent of respondents never use social media, suggesting that it has become a normalised part of many people’s lives.
Despite social media being set-up to help you engage with your friends and family, 44% of respondents felt that social media had a negative impact (12% major and 32% minor) and 21% felt it had no impact on their close relationships (figure 3). In contrast, 35% of respondents felt that it had no impact or a positive impact on their close relationships.
Within romantic relationships, social media’s effects are less clear. Arguments about social media are common, with 54% of people arguing about it (often 11%, sometimes 23%, rarely 20%) (figure 4). Yet people’s usage does not appear to have a clear correlation with the existence of social media related arguments. While 67% of people who use social media everyday have argued over its use, arguments were just as prevalent in people who only use social media weekly (67%). However, the question posed to respondents allowed for responses to include arguments about either their own, or their partner’s, use of social media. Thus, people who use social media infrequently may still have arguments over their partner’s more frequent use.
‘Phubbing’ is a term commonly used to describe the practice of looking at your phone while in the presence of others, often (though not exclusively) to access social media. Figure 5 illustrates a correlation between ‘phubbing’, and people’s perceptions of social media’s positive impact on their relationships. That is to say, those who admit to regularly ‘phubbing’ people also think that social media has more of a positive impact on their close relationships. This is compared with those who felt that they rarely or never ‘phub’, but felt that social media was less impactful on their relationships.
When it comes to concerns regarding children’s use of social media, parents are split (figure 6). 32% are very concerned, 22% are somewhat concerned, 24% are a little concerned and 22% are comfortable with it.
In order to assuage some of these concerns and monitor their children’s activity on the internet, many parents (300) have engaged in ‘spying’ activities (figure 7). Additionally, some (191) people have refused access until a certain age, while 154 people have provided information to their children about how to communicate on social media.
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Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2017). Household Internet Access. Retrieved from https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/mf/8146.0
Australian Communications and Media Authority. (2018). Snapshot: Aussie teens and kids online. Retrieved from https://www.acma.gov.au/publications/2016-02/report/snapshot-aussie-teens-and-kids-online
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eSafety Commissioner. (2018). Parenting in the digital age. Retrieved from https://www.esafety.gov.au/sites/default/files/2019-07/eSafety%20Research%20Parenting%20Digital%20Age.pdf
Gothenburg Research Institute. (2012). Sweden’s Largest Facebook Study. Retrieved from https://gupea.ub.gu.se/bitstream/2077/28893/1/gupea_2077_28893_1.pdf
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Whiteside, N., Aleti, T., Pallant, J. & Zeleznikow, J. (2018). ‘Helpful or harmful? Exploring the impact of social media usage on intimate relationships’. Australasian Journal of Information Systems, 22, pp.1-23.