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Surveillance, suspicion and social sharing: Affect and Social Media Symposium #2

University of East London, 23 March 2016

What factors influence the things adolescents share online? Who uses more emoticons – men or women? And can a small pebble-shaped device really transform the way you live your life?

These are just a few of the questions that were explored at the University of East London’s second symposium on affect and social media. The agenda wasn't specifically focused on families or children, but many of the speakers discussed topics with implications for family life in the digital age.

Anne Vermeulen presents her findings on adolescents' social media use.


Anne Vermeulen, for instance, presented her research on adolescents' emotional sharing on social media platforms. Her work looks at how and with whom young people share their happiness, sadness, shame and pride. Joining the conference via Skype from Belgium, she told us that while social media is popular with adolescents, it is not the main way they share their feelings. Face to face sharing was more common than sharing on any social media site. And parents and friends were the most frequent recipients of emotional sharing, regardless of platform – something that echoes the findings from our recent research on the internet and young people’s mental health.

Dr Darren Ellis discusses social media and workplace surveillance.


One of the day’s most interesting themes for families came, perhaps surprisingly, from Dr Darren Ellis’ work on techno-security and social media. As tech becomes more pervasive in our day to day lives, so does the potential for hidden security technologies. Dr Ellis talked the audience through public reactions to government surveillance, and the underwhelming reaction to revelations from Edward Snowden and other whistleblowers. People, he argued, view government surveillance as complicated, ubiquitous and inevitable. They adopt the attitude that those who are doing nothing wrong have nothing to hide.

Workplace surveillance sparks more outrage in the general population. In the wake of a recent European Court of Human Rights ruling saying that employers can read private messages sent from work accounts, there was significant media and public backlash in the UK – more than accompanied news about government spying.

Dr Ellis put forward a few explanations for the difference in attitudes towards workplace and government surveillance. Surveillance in the workplace is less complex, making it easier to spot and creating an anxious atmosphere. And the standard refrain of ‘if you’re doing nothing wrong you don’t need to worry’ doesn’t apply at work, either – studies (and experience) tell us that nearly everyone is guilty of some personal communication during working hours.

So how does this relate to families? We’ve written about family surveillance before – from monitoring apps to reading your child’s messages, to snoop or not to snoop is a key question in the digital age. Some argue that a responsible parent needs to know what their child gets up to, while others fear that too much monitoring stifles children’s resilience and trust.

Our work lives and family lives are very different, of course, but listening to Darren Ellis speak I was struck by some of the parallels between workplace and family surveillance. While some family monitoring is covert, it’s much less obscure than government spying – tech-savvy teens are likely to know if you’re going through their phone. And the family is another place where you can’t really argue that if you’re doing nothing wrong you’ve got nothing to hide. All children test boundaries and do things their parents don’t like – it’s what children do.

Children do need our help to stay safe, and no one would argue that a parent shouldn’t know what's going on in their child’s life. But is monitoring the answer? Darren Ellis argues that increasing surveillance by the government and in the workplace leads to an atmosphere of tension, anxiety, paranoia and suspicion. Do we want to risk cultivating this kind of atmosphere in our families?  

You can read more about all the speakers and presentations at this year’s Affect and Social Media Symposium here

By Rachel Rosen