Peer-based programmes more likely to succeed

Today is Safer Internet Day, and a time where we're bombarded by headlines, stories, expert opinions and worst-case scenarios that makes us question whether "the internet'' is good for our kids.

For the most part, the internet - including social media - plays an important role in young people's lives, and connects them with their social groups. A recent study of 2000 young people in the UK titled: Plugged in: Youth Engagement Through Social Media, found social media can be a powerful platform for social action and help young people have meaningful impact in their community, such as building large-scale campaigns and movements. I definitely see this with my work with Sticks 'n Stones.

The research also shows that social media can be a positive place for young people to express themselves, but as the use of smartphones and social media increases, we've become increasingly concerned about the time and experiences young Kiwis have online.

Is social media bad for young people's wellbeing?

Unicef did an evidence-based literature review looking at the existing research on how the time children spend using digital technology impacts their wellbeing. And what they found is that the most robust studies do not have a clear or linear relationship between the time young people spend online or with digital technologies and their wellbeing. Oxford University compared the relationship between screen time and wellbeing in 120,000 young people in the UK. This research found that those who used screens a moderate amount - between one and three hours each day - reported higher wellbeing than those who didn't use social media at all and also those who used it more than three hours a day.

The research suggests that it comes down to how you use the technology. Active engagement with others - like sending messages or commenting - is linked to improvements of wellbeing in areas such as social support, unhappiness and loneliness. Whereas passive consumption - like scrolling or clicking links - is not associated with improvements in wellbeing.

Recently, Netsafe shared tips on how Kiwi parents can help manage their children's time online, and Facebook and Instagram launched new tools to help us be more thoughtful around the time we spend on social media.

But how do we keep young people safe when they are online?

Since 2013, our work with 11 to 18-year-olds across the Central Otago region has found that young people want to be actively and meaningfully involved in discussions and decision making around developing solutions and preventing harm. Their authentic involvement leads to better outcomes and more impact among their peers.

A literature review undertaken by the Diana Award - an organisation established to continue Princess Diana's legacy - found that peer-led anti-bullying initiatives have direct and indirect benefits not only for the students involved but also for the wider student body and the school culture.

Communication clash

Evidence suggests that young people are more likely to report problems experienced online to their peers rather than parents, teachers or principals. Research shows a disconnect between the way that students and teachers communicate with each other, and that creating opportunities for peer support helps young people communicate with each other in authentic and supportive ways.

Bystander action

Bullying can stop or escalate based on how bystanders respond. If bystanders step in, bullying can stop within 10 seconds more than 50% of the time.

Sadly, research shows bystanders intervene less than 20% of the time. Findings show that bystanders are ``trapped in a social dilemma'' as they feel ashamed about not taking action, but are also aware of both their own safety and the need for acceptance within their peer group.

Peer-based bullying prevention programmes can help build their confidence and capacity with a range of strategies and options to choose from depending on the situation.

With recent New Zealand studies highlighting education as one of the most critical drivers of change in positive online behaviour, we've partnered with Facebook and Instagram to launch Online Advocates - a free youth-led anti-bullying programme that will train 500 high school students across 40 schools to provide peer support to more than 15,000 young Kiwis in metropolitan, regional and remote communities.

Parents, students and educators across all parts of New Zealand are encouraged to nominate their school to be part of this programme, and help create social change against bullying online and off: or

  • Sticks 'n Stones is a Central Otago-based award-winning, youth-led bullying prevention organisation.

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