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Social media as a catalyst and trigger for youth violence

A teenage boy and a teenage girl stand in a graffiti-covered underpass. He shows her something on his phone.

The Dawes Unit was a specialist unit within Catch22 that addressed the harms caused by gangs and youth violence, bringing together research, policy and practice. The service produced a range of research, which addresses the problems caused by gangs and explores how best to prevent gang involvement and support those looking to exit. This publication is part of that output.

Social media now plays a central role in the lives of young people in the UK, with the vast majority of teenagers using smartphones and tablets to access online platforms throughout their waking hours. The integration of social media into the daily lives of young people has left online– offline boundaries increasingly blurred. Whilst online activity offers huge potential to enhance the quantity and quality of communication between people across the world, it also raises some serious challenges.

This report focuses on one of these challenges, namely, the links between young people’s use of social media and youth violence. Whilst social media platforms are being used to glamourise, display and incite serious acts of violence, this content currently drifts under the radar of responsible adults and organisations which have the potential to respond to and challenge this behaviour.

The report makes for uncomfortable reading, particularly for those who work with young people and recognise the daily challenges that many face. The attitudes and behaviour of the young people discussed in this report must be viewed within the wider social and economic context of their lives. Many will have grown up in areas of socioeconomic deprivation, may be struggling to cope with serious issues around trauma stemming from early childhood experiences and are therefore exhibiting attitudes and behaviours that are tragically understandable when considered in this context. All of the findings presented in this report are intended to be read in light of the above.

By highlighting the ways in which social media is acting as a catalyst and trigger for serious incidents of violence between young people in real life, the report provides a springboard for action and collaborative exchanges between a full range of stakeholders as we move forward. It identifies a number of measures aimed at preventing young people harming, and being harmed by, other young people as a result of activity on social media. Its recommendations, however, should not be taken as a fixed blueprint, but as a means of kick-starting the development of appropriate and effective policy and practice in this area.