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Young people need social spaces, not social networks

22nd April 2024 by Jamie Masraff, Chief Executive, OnSide

You’ll often hear that there is nothing certain in life besides death and taxes, although a close third is probably our tendency to complain more as we get older about technology and the ‘young generation’. So it’s maybe no surprise that parents are increasingly turning to ‘dumbphones’ for their children, as I witnessed first-hand on a trip to Manchester Youth Zone where a group of young people were talking about a ‘brick phone’ one of them had been given, and marvelling at how little it could do. But to my mind, this isn’t just about generational misunderstanding, but instead is a response to how social media and smart phones are dominating young people’s lives to a frightening and devastating extent.

As a parent myself, this hit close to home! While we parents and carers have a responsibility for our kids’ habits, the reality is that it’s difficult, particularly when juggling long working hours and other challenges. I know that technology can be an easy tool for keeping children occupied. When I come home, my kids ask for the iPad; 10 minutes of school-related content can quickly become an hour of screen staring. “When can I have an iPhone?” is also a daily question from my 9-year-old despite how many times I tell her there’s no chance for a good few years.

The sad truth is young people know the value of socialising in person, but they’ve been robbed of opportunities to connect. Our own Generation Isolation survey found that 76% of young people are spending most of their free time on screens. As excessive tech use grew over the last decade, almost 500 youth clubs closed in the UK, and real-life play became a thing of the past, as covered in Jonathan Haidt’s brilliant article in The Atlantic. Add in a cost-of-living crisis that limits what young people can spend on out of school activities, and we’re giving them little choice but to be at home, escaping to worlds on screen, as you’ll find from reading this article we contributed to in The Guardian.

While tech has many benefits, it becomes a problem when the dopamine hit from addictive apps comes at the cost of real-world interactions that enable skills development. There’s evidence all around to suggest that overexposure to social media and smart phones has contributed to the youth mental health epidemic. One in six children has experienced cyberbullying, three quarters of children as young as 12 dislike their bodies, and nearly 40% of teenage girls who spend over five hours on social media a day have been diagnosed with clinical depression.

All this indicates that too many young people are lonely, lacking confidence and would massively benefit from more opportunities to build social connections – and, in doing so, build the skills needed to thrive. We can’t shift the digital tide but we can give young people more opportunities to connect and feel part of a community, as youth clubs do, day in day out. Our Generation Isolation report found that of those young people who attend a youth club, 83% said they’d developed new skills, and 72% said it has helped them overcome the difficulties they face.

I rarely see young people on their phones when I visit a Youth Zone. I’m proud we’ve created an enticing place that exceeds the digital world. I was recently at The Hive, Wirral Youth Zone, and saw members and volunteers building a kit car – it was fantastic to see their total dedication and joy from this activity. I’m sure somewhere there is an online kit car activity, but nothing beats the real-life experience, seeing them work as a team, communicating with each other, solving problems, learning from adult role models, and developing skills.

Safe spaces, engaging activities, and trusted adults are a simple formula, but day after day, I see its transformational power. The OnSide Network currently supports 55,000 young people each year, but thousands more need access to youth work. After a decade of being deprioritised, we must come together as a society to back youth. We need to rebuild a strong youth sector that fits the needs of today’s young people and can resist this enormous shift to a life on screens and the toll this takes on young people’s mental health.