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Can vulnerable people ever get the most out of the internet while avoiding its dangers?

Online risk signThe internet has a unique capacity to inspire and inform vulnerable young people, engaging their interests, providing them endless learning opportunities and drawing them into mainstream culture and the popular debate.

During a general election this power for positive engagement is increased further still and shines more brightly than ever. Schools across the UK are already teaching children about the importance of getting politically active online and running mock elections with Twitter polls and debates on key issues. Meanwhile support services for learning-disabled people are working to encourage them to get active, helping them better understand their personal rights and to get ready for the polls.

Social media at its best

Social media played an important role in the previous general election in 2010 and will this year be absolutely critical, as it will be every year from now on. An estimated 47% of 18 to 34 year olds regularly change their views on key issues, influenced by Twitter, and politicians are devoting more of their resources to engaging the younger electorate online.

More young people with learning disabilities than ever before will also be joining the national debate in May, learning about the importance of voting or maybe doing it for the very first time. Currently only around 30% of the 1.4m learning-disabled people in the UK vote, something Mencap’s Hear my Voice campaign is working hard to change. It wants more young people with learning disabilities to learn the importance of being politically active online and to have a stronger voice.

Their voting potential has not gone unnoticed by Labour and Ed Miliband has set out a series of policies to capture the attention of more disabled people. He has also pledged to lower the voting age to 16 if elected, pulling the gap in voters and social media ever closer. Of course this is all hugely exciting. Political apathy has been at dangerous levels in the UK for years with only around 60% of the electorate voting in the last few elections (65.1% in 2010).

Understanding the dangers

Cyberbullying, inappropriate content, grooming, exploitation, fraud and identity theft can all present specific dangers for vulnerable young people. Some 27% of parents say their child has been exposed to some kind of online threat and the Government has so far singularly failed to work effectively with internet service providers to tackle the issue, unable to get to grips with a quickly changing online environment.

Douglas Alexander, the head of the Labour party’s election strategy, confirmed this when was quoted in the Guardian as saying it was getting harder for politicians to campaign online. He said: “We are used to a politics where we share facts, but diverge on opinion,” he said. “We are confronting increasingly, because of the rise of social media, a politics where people’s social media feeds can be an echo chamber for, at best, their own opinions and, at worst, their own prejudices. And that’s a tough challenge for all democratic politicians in every party of the UK, and more broadly.”

How Twitter is responding

The industry is responding and Twitter CEO Dick Costolo recently said he was “frankly ashamed” of the company’s weak response to tackling online abuse. The company has since announced a fresh crackdown on abusive content and will be rolling out tougher content filters with an amended policy to suspend the accounts of anyone who breaks its content rules. Only time will tell how effective the stricter filters will be but it’s clear that Twitter has declared war on the trolls.

By understanding the risks and taking a few basic precautions, such as keeping PCs in family rooms, updating antivirus software and teaching vulnerable people about the dangers, you can help them enjoy the positive benefits of the internet safely.

If you need to find out more on online abuse, check out the National Crime Agency’s safety centre, which has some useful resources. The Anti-bullying Alliance, a project dedicated to ending harassment for people with a disability, also has some great resources including advice pages.

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Social media’s role in helping older people stay connected

The UK is only now starting to get to grips with the idea that it has to find better ways to cope with its ageing population. Around 10m people over the age of 65 currently live in the UK and Government projections estimate that figure to be around 19m by 2050, around one in four of the population.

Among the many issues this raises, such as the rise in public spending and the potential reduction in GDP, is the emotional and physical welfare of such a large demographic.

Older people already face a growing trend of loneliness and depression, which are key issues facing people over 65. Charity groups and nursing home companies such as Caring Homes are now urging businesses to take leading roles in setting up schemes to help combat this including telephone befriending schemes as well as social media training groups.

The business of combatting loneliness

Despite it traditionally being the domain of younger people, two studies last year showed demonstrably positive links between social media and older people.

Data from an EU-funded research group, led by the University of Exeter, found that social media has significant benefits in not only combating isolation but also in increasing people’s physical well-being. Age 2.0  found that those who regularly used social media had heightened feelings of self-competence, engaged more in other social activities, had a stronger sense of personal identity and showed improved cognitive capacity.

At the same time, figures from think tank The Policy Exchange showed that some 5m people aged 65 and over have never even used the internet. So online engagement is extremely positive for older people but they aren’t necessarily enjoying the benefits.

Savvy silver surfers

Charities argue that much more needs to be done to encourage older people to get online. It is expected that between 2010 and 2060, the number of people aged 65 and over across Europe as a whole will grow from 17.4% to 29.5% of the total population. So, on one hand this could mean that internet savvy teenagers in 2015 will become savvy silver surfers of the future, with longstanding relationships with their tablets, smartphones and social media. That would mean the current trend over loneliness and depression could vanish but for now remains a critical problem.

Why Facebook should target older people now

At the time of writing there are a lot of rumours that Google will shortly announce that its Google+ social platform could be splitting up into two, ‘Photos’ and ‘Streams’, reflecting the shifting split between the traditional platforms and the newer image-driven ones that appeal to younger users.

By adapting to meet the needs of its core users now, Facebook and other traditional social media platforms can target older markets and secure older engagement. As young people gravitate toward image-driven platforms such as: Snapchat and Instagram, Facebook could capitalise by enriching the experience for older users.

In the Age 2.0 study, each of the 76 volunteers involved in the research showed improvements in their mental and physical well-being. They were each aged between 60 and 95 and were in full-time residential care or receiving care at home in the UK.

It concluded that Facebook in particular plays a significant role in helping people stay connected with friends and family, while encouraging them to get more socially active in other ways.

There has also been a lot of speculation over the future repositioning of Facebook to its changing user groups and how it needs to adapt. Last year its user numbers stopped growing for the first time, while still posting revenues of a massive US$12.5Bn (£8.1Bn).

It will be interesting to see how Facebook responds and if it goes after the younger markets or acknowledges its older users and their positive contribution.

So is the acceptance of technology ultimately the key to ageing well? Well, social media has certainly changed everyone’s ability to reach out and connect with people across the world and as users grow older it will be up to the social networking sites to adapt accordingly.

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How can social media benefit your job search?

Social media has moved on from ambiguous status updates about how much you miss your ex or sharing hundreds of pictures of cats. Now it can prove beneficial when it comes to searching for your next job.

LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and even Pinterest can benefit your next job search, alongside sites such as CCJM and Jobstoday, and work as an alternative method for reaching out to potential employers.

LinkedIn

LinkedIn is the social media platform created for networking purposes, so many people use the site and only connect with people they have worked with before. However, LinkedIn also offers an excellent opportunity to connect with potential employers – simply search for people within the industry you are looking to work in or use the job search tool available that lists jobs in your area.

You can also use your LinkedIn profile as a CV itself (and many job application forms online now simply let you connect your LinkedIn for ease) so be sure to keep it as up to date as possible, include your hobbies and any links to examples of your work. You can also ask colleagues from previous jobs to write you a reference and endorse your skills, for all to see when they visit your profile.

Twitter

With just 140 characters you can make contact with future potential employers on Twitter. If you don’t fancy mixing your personal life and jobseeker experience then set up a separate profile and be sure to send out tweets that are relevant and interesting.

Larger corporations usually have a Twitter account just for vacancies, where they post updates and job advertisements for all to see. However, be prepared to tweet smaller companies directly to ask for work. An upfront approach on social media can really help your work prospects.

Pinterest

You thought pinning to boards on Pinterest was just for brides-to-be and fashion bloggers didn’t you? You couldn’t be more wrong.

Pinterest serves as the perfect platform for an online CV, which looks better than a sad old Word doc or a complicated infographic that you spent a week putting together only to realise when you converted it to PDF there was a horrifying typo in the midst of some text. Use Pinterest as a means to showcase your best work and life experiences so employers can see a nice snapshot of you.

Facebook

Facebook isn’t just for sharing terrible pictures of your friends on nights out, you can also use it to benefit your job search.

‘Like’ the pages of companies you want to potentially work for to keep up to date on with any changes or advancements they are announcing, many companies will also post links to their job vacancies on Facebook to give interested followers a head start.

When it comes to social media benefiting your job search, it can be considered a great alternative to printing off hundreds of CVs and sending them out to employers or spending hours filling out lengthy online application forms.

Just be careful what you post and share, employers will look at your profiles and people have found themselves in hot water or out of work because of their use of social media. Keep it professional with a touch of insight into your personal life as well – save the drunken pictures for Snapchat.

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Being “on” a social network is not the same as using it

It is highly likely that you have a profile on at least one social network. You probably have a profile on at least one of Facebook, LinkedIn or Google+. You may also have a Twitter account and maybe an account with Instagram. Indeed, most people have more than one social network profile.

But there is a world of difference between having a social network profile and using that social network.

Whenever I run a workshop for business leaders I ask “are you on LinkedIn?” These days, everyone raises their hand. “Excellent news,” I say, “that means everyone here is on the main business network. So how many of you have used LinkedIn during the past seven days?”

Most of the hands go down; often, nobody in the room has actually “used” LinkedIn. They are there just as passengers on the network, not taking any kind of active part – and wondering at the same time what the point of their LinkedIn profile is.

Google+_screenshot

Now, a new study of the usage of Google+ has found similar – shocking – results.

According to the research, there are 2.2bn Google+ accounts but only around 5m of these are active, posting information that isn’t just a comment on a YouTube video.

In other words 99.8% of people on Google+ are NOT using it.

That tallies with my ad-hoc measurement of people using LinkedIn – the vast majority of people simply have a profile and do nothing with it.

The social networks themselves can point to billions of people who have an account. But having an account and using it are not the same thing.

Businesses are still trying to understand how they can use social networks to increase sales and profits. The problem would appear to be that these businesses seem to think that all you have to do is create a profile and customers will come running to you.

Like most other things in business you get as much out of something as you put in. If all you put in to your social network is your profile, that’s all you will get out.

If you want to make the most of Google+ or LinkedIn you have to put more in. It means adding to the network on a regular basis, taking part in conversations and engaging with people. If you do that, you will get sales and new business leads. If you don’t do that you may as well go down to the corner of your street and whistle into the wind. It will do you as much good as simply having a profile on a social network.

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