Social Media & Youth: Opportunities and Challenges

This is an exciting time to be a young person interested in media especially if you in Zimbabwe! With the advent of mobile technology devices and the growth of social media platforms, many youth have access not only to consume media more easily and quickly but also to make media and share it. As access to both the consumption and creation of media has risen, so have the challenges and opportunities.

Challenges to youth in this new age of quick and easy social media come in both the consumption of media and in the creation of media. In my experience, one of the greatest challenges that youth face in negotiating new media revolves around sex. With the average adolescent on WhatApp with an average contact list or 200 and using the Internet for 12.5 hours per week, exposure to media that depicts unhealthy sexual practices and attitudes is high. Given there has been news of sex tapes leaks, nude pics leaks some from respectable adults, it is no suprise that young people think its cool to send and request for nudes. Not only is pornography more accessible than ever, but also even mainstream media tends to depict sexual behaviors without any mention of risk or responsibility. This creates a very real challenge for youth who may be relying on media to provide them with guidance and information about sexuality and sexual practices.

From cyber bullying to sexting, social media opens up avenues for problems in social relationships that did not exist when I was growing up in the 90s. The only bully I encountered was when I was in grade 4. But now its possible to have adult bullies on social media. As teens and tweens, as they call themselves on twitter, use more mediated forms of communication, the chance for miscommunication expands exponentially. Between texting and social media sites such as Facebook and WhatsAPP, youth communicate more easily with friends outside of school and extracurricular activities. But because of the lack of traditional social cues such as body language and facial expression, many will end up arguing with friends over issues that may not have arisen if they had been talking to one another face to face. Recently Econet Wireless, Zimbabwes largest telecommunication company launched free twitter for its subscribers. A whole new platform is now available even to people who had no prior knowledge of it. One common spelling mistake and the whole of twimbos will be on to you. For some seasoned users, this is ok. But for newbies and young people it can be devastating. And, of course, the danger of being victimized by an adult predator is always lurking when youth use social media to communicate with people who are unknown to them in real life. Kids who use mobile technology to share sexy photos of themselves with a friend may find that the ease of sharing pictures leads what they thought were private to become public. Arguments, sexy photos and conversation, and bullying that begin through social media can expand into real life and cause devastating social problems for young people.

These challenges of media use and accessibility are very real, and youth need guidance from trusted adults to learn how to negotiate them in order to make the most out of the opportunities that increased access creates. Problem is parents and elders who are supposed to be guiding children have no idea whatsoever on how social media works. They are clueless that their kids are sending and receiving inappropriate pictures while seated there with them. But, along with these challenges come opportunities for youth to increase their knowledge and skills and to share their own ideas more broadly.

A new wave of learning through social media has opened up doors for young people to learn everything from foreign languages to how to write computer code and everything in between. You can now know what is taking place in Iraq or the effects of Scottish independence. All this vast amount of knowledge at your finger tips given you have battery. This kind of access to knowledge and skill development is completely new, and in some ways youth benefit more than adults because of their familiarity with new media and their openness to using it as a source of learning.

Social networking sites and the use of wireless communication programs allow real time conversations with someone from a distance. This provides the opportunity to continue relationships that in the past would gave been too distant and to build new relationships with friends from around the world. Growing up I remember having a couple of pan pals. However, the wait in between letters was a challenge and they soon faded. Now it is way different. This open line of communication builds new understandings and collaborations for young people from very different cultures. They can build worldwide coalitions around everything from special interests and hobbies to activism activities.

The ease of making media provides the chance not only to make original media but also to share one’s creations with the world. Armed with a smart phone that has a camera, one can tell their story and broadcast it to millions of people across the globe. Isn’t that amazing. Apps such as Vine make it possible to record 6 sec videos and share. 6 sec takes a lot of creativity often found in young people. Mobile technology puts the ability to take photographs and create films right in the hands of young people. Sites such as YouTube, social networking sites, and blogging sites allow young people to develop a worldwide audience for their work. Instead of waiting until they can afford expensive equipment, young people can use mobile devices to hone their filmmaking and photography skills as they grow and learn. This brings new vision and fresh ideas into media industries.

Youth today have opportunities to use media in ways that could not have even been imagined twenty years ago. There is no doubt that media literacy education is a must for children and adolescents today. With opportunity comes challenge, but when young people are provided with media literacy education, it gives them the tools to learn to use social media safely, to critically analyze the messages that are being sent to them from different sites, and to learn to construct and share media and their thoughts, skills, and knowledge on their own terms. With these new tools and this new knowledge, young people have a wide-open world to explore, learn, and share.


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