A famous study compared the impact of three ways young people spend their time. The study found that young people's life chances were most improved by structured activities, for example playing in a football team or in a adult-led music band. The consequences of spending a more solitary childhood at home watching TV or playing video games were largely neutral. The worst outcomes came from young people spending time together in social activities that lacked formal structure or adult supervision.
Knowing this research I have long had concerns about the Internet. Of the three kinds of activities studied, on-line socialising seems to be closest to the third; unstructured group activity. My worries are confirmed by a conversation I have with a friend with whom I am holidaying. She is a politician who has for years conscientiously represented an inner city part of West London.
Part of her patch has been suffering from an upsurge in violent youth crime. The context for the violence is neighbourhood based gangs. The lines are drawn very strictly on the map, with one young person recently beaten into a coma for appearing in a video produced by a gang from a neighbouring estate.
The video was posted on YouTube. My friend tells me that social media play a major role in gang organisation. Not only do youngsters post videos showing off guns and knives and glorifying gang life, but Blackberry Messenger and Facebook (although, I am told, not yet Twitter) are used as ways of cranking up rivalry, spreading malicious gossip and arranging confrontations.
Lots of people are aware of this problem but no one seems to be confronting it head on. The challenge, it seems to me, is not surveillance of the kind the police force presumably undertake, in as much its limited resources allow. What is needed is a kind of benign oversight which might include the following elements:
Spotting emerging confrontations and providing information so that on the ground charities can intervene (these charities suffer from short term and inadequate funding and being constrained by borough boundaries, so need good intelligence to enable them to target their resources and collaborate effectively).
Making some material public so the wider community can be more alert to issues and dangers.
Sometimes intervening directly through posts and messages, for example, offering protection to those who are being victimised and threatened and letting ring leaders know they are being watched.
This intervention would be best provided by young people themselves, particularly those who understand but have turned their back on gang culture, but overseen by adults able to provide support, advice, protection and routes through to authority.
So this is the challenge to RSA Fellows: As well as wanting to use Fellowship as a way of making the world a better place, you are innovative and many of you experts in social media. How about a group of Fellows putting together a Catalyst bid for seed funding to develop a social enterprise addressing this issue and offering services to local and police authorities? Such a bid could seek to engage the support and skills of staff in our John Adam Street Projects team who are expert in social network mapping.
As Chief Executive I don't have any direct say in which bids win Catalyst awards - this is down to expert staff and members of our Fellowship Council - but I would certainly be happy to help with such a bid.
So, any responses? Is it a good idea? Are there already services like this out there and what can we learn form them? And, most important, is anyone willing to take this idea forward?
In part two of the Our Way Through essay series, Anthony Painter considers whether our current relationships with money, power and technology are helping or hindering society's progress.
A new CEO, a new format and new ideas – Andy Haldane marked his first day as head of the RSA in September with our first virtual Fellowship Townhall.