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Social networking sites and belonging for young 'at risk' Australians

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For some young people, participation on social network sites has become mandatory for inclusion amongst peers. Not having Facebook, for example, can mean missing invites to parties, losing contact with friends and falling out of ‘the loop’. While there are concerns and ‘risks’ associated with using social network sites like Facebook, these risks are often over-played to the point where they conceal or overshadow the great potential of these technologies to connect young people and to foster, articulate and make visible systems of belonging: friendships and circles of friends, families, communities, ‘subcultures’, and so on. It is this potential that I will focus on in this post, drawing particularly on research that engages with young homeless and ‘at risk’ people. Can social spaces on the internet improve social inclusion for young Australians?

There are now around 845 million people using Facebook, over 10 million of them from Australia (Facebook.com 2012). As with many innovations, young people have been in the ‘vanguard’ (Livingstone 2008: 394) of the sweeping adoption of sites like MySpace and Facebook, to the point that popular discourses which shape our perception of these spaces often frame them as exclusively for the young. Increasingly, however, they are not. While MySpace appeared to be populated by a younger demographic (boyd 2007), it is clear that Facebook’s appeal is much broader, meaning that young people must often negotiate an appropriate course of action when deciding whether or not to ‘Friend’ parents, guardians, aunts, aunties, grandparents and other family members who also make use of the site (West, Lewis & Currie 2009; Robards 2010). This broadening appeal introduces new possibilities for improving a sense of belonging for young people.

Based on a study of 201 young people recruited through a drop-in agency for homeless adolescents in Los Angeles, California, Rice, Monro, Barman-Adhikari and Young (2010) found that internet access and participating on social network sites can be greatly beneficial for young homeless people. 84% of the young people in their study used the internet at least once a week, with almost a quarter of their participants spending more than an hour each day online. Their access points were often in public places such as libraries and youth service agencies, but also included access through a mobile phone, at a friend’s home or wherever they happened to be staying:

'Homeless adolescents used e-mail or social networking sites to connect to family and home-based, street-based, and online peers. Approximately one quarter used the internet to find a sex partner [...] homeless adolescents are using the internet and social networking sites to reach out to a broad set of social network ties, including not only street-based ties, but also family and home-based peers.' (Rice, Monro, Barman-Adhikari & Young 2010: 611)

While Rice et al. do caution against some of the negative implications associated with internet use amongst these ‘at risk’ young people – especially in terms of sexual health – they also draw attention to the great potential of sites like Facebook for positive connections with family and peer-networks. See Table 1 (Rice et al. 2010: 612) for a summary of who the young people in this study were in contact with on social network sites. Rice et al. argue that, in situations where contact with family was positive (when the family relationship was not abusive, for example), social network sites provided the young people in their study with a useful opportunity for contact that they otherwise may have found difficult.

In my own research on social network sites, conducted from 2007 to 2010 and involving forty participants aged 15 – 27 on the Gold Coast (see Robards 2010a; Robards 2010b; Robards & Bennett 2011), I have found that young people often report communicating through a social network site can sometimes be less prohibitive than other forms of communication such as making a phone call. While not replacing other forms of communication, participation on social network sites can provide an additional platform for interaction and for the strengthening of systems of belonging. The reasons given for preferring contact on social network sites over a phone call, for instance, include economic rationale (calling can be expensive), not wanting to disturb the person they are calling (‘leaving a message’ so they can respond when they are free is preferable) and also a feeling of confrontation from the immediacy of real-time communication. Social network sites disrupt many of these prohibitive dimensions, although there are clearly important financial considerations associated with internet access (perhaps with the exception of public access points). Further, interaction on social network sites can be indirect. That is, a status update, for example, can be read by many but directed at nobody in particular. Thus, a user of a social network site can ‘check up’ on friends and family that also use the site without necessarily contacting them directly. Similarly, they can alert their network to recent life events without necessarily expecting a response. When the stakes are lower, so to can the prohibitive dimensions of contact with friends and family be diminished, especially for ‘at risk’ young people.

Table 1 - When you use social network sites like MySpace or Facebook, who do you communicate with?

Parents (including foster family or step family)



Brothers, sisters, cousins or other family members



Friends or associates you know from home (before you came to Hollywood)



Friends or associates you know from the streets of Hollywood



Friends or associates you met online



Table adapted from Rice, Monro, Barman-Adhikari & Young 2010: 612

Similar to Rice et. al (2010), in an Australian study, Notley (2009) discovered various social inclusion benefits associated with internet use and participation on social network sites. Notley’s ethnographic study involved nine young people aged 12 to 18 living in Queensland, all of whom were classified as ‘at risk’ of social exclusion1 due to homelessness, mental health issues, pregnancy, drug abuse, family illness, distress, and truancy (Notlet 2009: 1213). Much of the broader research on young people and social network sites finds that sites like MySpace and Facebook are generally governed by practices of network articulation and maintenance rather than practices which involve meeting ‘strangers’ or networking in the traditional sense (boyd & Ellison 2007). In other words, most young people are Friending and interacting with people they already know offline. Notley, however, found that her group of ‘at risk’ participants actually reported actively seeking new contacts online, thus forging new ‘opportunities for inclusion’ (2009: 1221) and new systems of belonging. These systems revolved around or were instigated by cultural interests (a favourite television series, for instance) or the pursuit of practical knowledge (in areas such as parenting methods and skills). Could these online forms of inclusion described by Notley replace offline, in-person networks for young people ‘at risk’?

It is my argument that the distinction between online and offline forms of communication and belonging is a false one. As internet use and participation on social network sites becomes integrated into everyday practices – especially for young people who have been identified here as the ‘vanguard’ (Livingstone 2008: 394) and as ‘early adopters’ (Notley 2009: 1222) of these new mediated forms of belonging – the offline and the online constantly overlap. Often, especially in popular discourse, the central purpose for an offline/online dichotomy is to relegate all things ‘online’ to a position of obscurity and in-authenticity; to de-value systems of belonging that are mediated through the internet. Rather, as the research discussed very briefly in this article indicates, there is great value in the systems of belonging mediated by social network sites and other social spaces on the internet. Instead of being concerned about whether online social practices replace offline ones, I would argue that those working to improve social inclusion and a sense of belonging for young people should focus on developing and incorporating these potentials into their existing services.

While more research and innovation is required in this area, I hope this article has begun to illustrate the ways in which social network sites may be used to foster inclusion and belonging amongst the young people that the readers of Undercurrent are most concerned about. There are no easy answers or formulas for ‘dealing with’ or incorporating social network sites into youth services, but it is clear that education is the key. Education here is not only concerned with teaching young people how to act (safely) online, following on from the concerns raised by Rice et al., but it must be a two-way process; educators, service providers, youth workers and researchers must learn new and still emerging literacies associated with ‘being’ online, and on how to negotiate a social world that moves between online and offline forms of sociality so fluidly. Young people, many of whom will have grown up developing and testing these literacies, will be the best teachers and guides.


For more information on my own research, or to contact me to discuss any of the research of content covered in this short article, please visit my website: bradyrobards.com.

Brady Robards is a PhD candidate and an associate lecturer at Griffith University, Gold Coast. Brady’s research explores how young people use online social spaces (specifically social network sites such as MySpace and Facebook) to construct a reflexive sense of identity, and considers how that identity is positioned within, across or in-between systems of belonging. Brady is a member of The Australian Sociological Association (TASA), the Cultural Studies Association of Australasia (CSAA) and the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR).



1.     Social exclusion is defined by Notley (2009) as separate to poverty and deprivation, more accurately described as a situation in which people ‘do not [or can not] participate in key activities in society’ (Saunders et al. in Notley 2009: 1211).


boyd, danah (2007) ‘Why Youth ♥ Social Network Sites:  The Role of Networked Publics in Teenage Social Life’ in D. Buckingham (ed.) MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Learning, Cambridge: MIT Press, pp. 119-142

boyd, danah & Ellison, Nicole (2007) ‘Social network sites: Definition, history, and scholarship’, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13(1): 210-230.

Facebook (2012) ‘Facebook press room’, accessed 16 April, 2012: http://newsroom.fb.com/content/default.aspx?NewsAreaId=22

Livingstone, Sonia (2008) ‘Taking risky opportunities in youthful content creation: teenagers’ use of social networking sites for intimacy, privacy and self-expression’, New Media & Society, 10(3): 393-411.

Notley, Tanya (2009) ‘Young People, Online Networks, and Social Inclusion’, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 14(4): 1208-1227.

Rice, Eric, Monro, William, Barman-Adhikari, Anamika, and Young, Sean D. (2010) ‘Internet Use, Social Networking, and HIV/AIDS Risk for Homeless Adolescents’, Journal of Adolescent Health, 47 (6): 610-613.

Robards, Brady (2010a) ‘Randoms in my bedroom: Negotiating privacy and unsolicited contact on social network sites’, Prism, 7(3): http://www.prismjournal.org/fileadmin/Social_media/Robards.pdf.

Robards, Brady (2010b) ‘Negotiating identity and integrity on social network sites for educators’, International Journal for Educational Integrity, 6(2): http://www.ojs.unisa.edu.au/index.php/IJEI/article/viewFile/700/528.

Robards, Brady & Bennett, Andy (2011) ‘MyTribe: Postsubcultural manifestations of belonging on social network sites’, Sociology, 45(2): 303-317.

West, Anne, Lewis, Jane and Currie, Peter (2009) ‘Students’ Facebook ‘friends’: Public and private spheres’, Journal of Youth Studies, 12(6): 615-627.



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