Facebook Friend or Facebook foe ?

By Simon P.Hammond

Date Posted: Saturday, 4 June 2011


Simon joined the School of Social Work and Psychology at the University of East Anglia as a PhD researcher on a teaching studentship in October 2008. He holds a BA (Hons) in Psychology and Sport Studies from the University of Northampton (2004) and an MSc in Psychology with Commendation from Nottingham Trent University (2006). After his undergraduate studies Simon worked as a residential worker in a young people’s home in Sheffield. Following his MSc Simon worked as a Course Manager and Lecturer in Sports Psychology for 3 years, whilst also undertaking work as a freelance Consultant Sports Psychologist. Simon is a Graduate Member of the British Psychological Society with membership to the Social Psychology and Qualitative Psychology Sections as well as the Psychologists and Social Services Special Interest Group. He is also a part of the Qualitative and Critical Psychology Research Group at UEA. Simon is a valued and a generous contributor of articles to the goodenoughcaring Journal.


Facebook friend for Facebook foe? 

This paper reports on an aspect of a recent PhD project which represents a movement towards raising awareness of Information Communication Technologies (ICT) as tool for promoting improvements in the mental and physical well-being of Britain’s most vulnerable young people. The paper reports on research undertaken exploring how young people living in residential care settings view their use of a particular Social Networking Site (SNS), Facebook.

The affinity of digital media such as the mobile phone and the internet has changed the way adolescents choose to communicate with each other and those around them. The rapid and continued growth of networking sites like Facebook and Bebo potentiate this communicative change further. Adolescents looked-after are no different to their peers in their desire to communicate with friends via SNS. Young people using SNS can choose to accept, ignore or block friend requests and search for others with whom they wish to make friends with (Boyd & Ellison, 2008), a feature in itself which may have particularly resonance for young people living in care and for who work with them. Research has indicated that for looked-after young people contact with birth families and former carers is a highly complex area (Neil 2008; Young, & Neil, 2009). Such complexities seemingly increase in this online environment making engagement and dialogues with young people in this arena of vital importance. A wide body of research evidence suggests that social support whilst in, and beyond care, has the potential to increase successful outcomes during the life course (Gilligan, 2005: Stein & Munro, 2008). Nevertheless, the positives of using a social networking tool like Facebook, in terms of its ability to maintain positive peer and social relationships which may aid transitions both within and beyond care has not been fully explored.

The application of existing research trends in young people’s feelings and experiences of offline social support networks do underline the facilitative role that SNS may be able to play. Dixon (2007: p.85) suggested that many young people in care, particularly residential care, may: “…lack a social support network – particularly if they have experienced movement in and after care.” Kendrick’s (2005) comments also state that research with looked-after populations has shown that many young people become socially and geographically isolated. For looked-after young people to thrive upon leaving care (particularly within the economic climate at the time of this paper’s writing) may depend on who they know as well as what they know. Research has indicated that relationships with peers amongst young adults are crucial in for: “..generating offline benefits, commonly referred to as social capital…” (Steinfield, Ellison & Lampe, 2008: p.434) . In many ways the potentials of SNS to increase these resilience mechanisms such as social capital and facilitate social support networks should find as much resonance as those concerned with protection in the short term.


As part of a larger participatory research project the views of looked-after residentially placed adolescents was sought with regards to how they conceptualised their usage of SNS. Fourteen young people aged 13-18 were recruited from an established residential care population. The researcher’s regular visits to the homes recorded the conversations created through the larger project which explored the uses of ICT in promoting reflective dialogues akin to those stimulated by life story work. These sessions were then transcribed. The focus of the analysis in this paper was a thematic analysis.  This paper will look at the themes emerging from the conversations held with the young people about their usage of Facebook. The following discussion uses extracts taken from various sessions undertaken with the young people. These extracts are used with the permission of the young people. The names of the young people have been changed to protect their identity and maintain their confidentiality as agreed with themselves and their care providers.


Results and Discussion

Findings suggest that young people’s use of Facebook appear to reflect a wider culture acceptance and growing usage of such sites within society as a way of maintaining friendships. The extract below was taken from a conversation held with a 17 year old young person called Tim. The conversation took place whilst he invited the researcher to look at his Facebook friends:

Researcher: Are they people you have known before offline or?  (voice trails off)

Tim: I have known them, known them for years.

Researcher: Yeah?

Tim: Oh hang on, if, if I find one, I’ll find a person, a good friend of mine….he’s been one of my best mates for ages.

Many young people saw Facebook as a convenient tool for maintaining friendships with peers from whom they had become geographically distant. This trend was similar to that of previous research findings which indicate that young people tend to use SNS like Facebook as a way of mainly maintaining pre-existing offline friendships (Ellison, Steinfield & Lampe, 2007), or to connect or reconnect with previously known friends (Lenhart & Madden, 2007). This aspect, though far from simple when placed in the context of looked-after children, does illustrate the ability of SNS like Facebook to cultivate offline benefits akin to social capital. By maintaining a community of care and positive social networks, the potential future benefits of these networks can transcend across the life span.

The economical nature of Facebook and indeed other SNS as a whole, also appealed to the young people. A frequently referred to benefit of communicating with people using the Facebook was the instant message feature and its lack of cost. The extract below was taken from a conversation held with a 15 year old young person called Paula. As she explains:

It’s more expensive to speak  (pauses) cheaper on Facebook .

A lack of mobile phone credit was a constant source of frustration for many young people. This frustration was mainly a result of the young people, similar to many people their ages, rapidly sending pay-as-you-go top up vouchers. This usually resulted in a lack of autonomy and reduced contact with various peer groups and in some case family members. As highlighted by Steinfield, Ellison and Lampe (2008) comments exploring the ability of SNS to generate offline benefits, relationships with peers amongst young adults need to be maintained if benefits are to be created. For a population that can be frequently relocated the ability to maintain these friendships via more economical SNS may be crucial.
Implications & Recommendations

Though the paper presented here is designed to be a short accessible overview to the usage of Facebook by looked-after residential populations. It does begin to unpick the benefits of care populations using positively SNS such as Facebook to maintain positive social networks. There remains an understandable degree of nervousness around the promotion and usage of ICT and SNS in social work practice. This may be attributed to an increased focus upon social work practitioners and media coverage which continually emphasises the risks associated with digital media such as the internet. This lingering concern was aptly summarised by Tregeagle and Darcy (2008: p.1482) who ask the question:

Will rapid convergence of technologies (such as hybridisation of mobile phones and the internet) leave children more vulnerable to cyberbullying or paedophiles?

Seemingly the answer to this question is yes, it probably will. The answer to the question posed by Tregeagle and Darcy (2008) should not be seen as a closing of a door on such technologies, since their rapid diffusion and importance to youth cultures is unlikely to halt because of this perceived risk. It does however provide a strong rationale for accepting ICT and SNS as a legitimate communicative tool. Increasing professional’s knowledge and presence in online environments presents an opportunity help educate the most vulnerable and disadvantaged groups of young people as how best protect to themselves online. In so doing practitioners may enable this population to benefit from potential offline benefits which across their life span. After all outcomes do not stop once a young person leave care.
*For more information about looked-after populations and ICT please visit:



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