Is Control the Same as Agency in Social Media?

By Mabel Truong

Is agency the same as control when we use social media? We think it might depend on who is talking about the ‘control’ or ‘agency’ when they describe who is using and what is happening on social media. While ‘agency’ is often defined as having direct ability to act and make choices, ‘control’ is where external factors, people or groups direct the behaviour of others. In other words, to have agency is to have influence rather than control.

Young people enjoy having agency when it comes to their social media use. Young people have demonstrated their awareness of how to be responsible online by taking appropriate measures such as setting their accounts to private or not talking to strangers online. However, from our focus groups we found that parents associate agency as losing control over their children.

A recurring theme from the focus groups involved parents feeling the need to control their child’s online activities. Many of the parents admitted to implementing strict rules when it came to their child’s online activity. This includes restricting what their child can watch, not allowing them to have their own accounts or having access to all their passwords, and constantly monitoring what is on their screens. One parent had said that they didn’t want to “ban them from using technology, but just control them”. Another way parents have “controlled” their child’s online activity includes limiting the number of hours spent on the technology per day. Some parents argued the reason for limiting time online is because of the fear that their child would become addicted. However, parents also find it “very difficult to control” their child’s online activity when it comes to the degree of censorship that can be achieved when they engage in their online activities.

Overall, parents have described controlling their child’s online activity as an “ongoing battle” to find what is acceptable as well as what is socially acceptable. What is defined as “acceptable” is also commonly defined by parents themselves either from their own experiences or as a result of pressure from what other families are doing in their household. However, some parents expressed how their child had reached out to them to place controls over their use of their phones because they couldn’t control themselves. Interestingly, young people have expressed their sometimes ‘love-hate’ relationship with social media. Such that, they would take the initiative to delete apps when they feel they take up alot of their time particularly when they need to focus on work.

While parents feel that as their child gets older, that they have less control, young people have expressed the joy of having agency can bring them when it comes to their online activities. Young people strongly believe that their parents hate everything to do with social media. Despite parents believing that they have control over their child, many young people admitted to creating an account without the knowledge of their parents.

Agency gives young people greater freedoms to express themselves online. Young people shared how they enjoy being able to use online platforms to create spam accounts, particularly on Instagram, where they can share whatever they like with mainly their close friends, and simply use social media to chat with their friends and family. Young people have noted that they would feel disconnected without online platforms as it is their main source of communication.

Through having greater access to online platforms, young people see it as a way to escape. Young people have also expressed how controlling parents is not healthy for their child as the young person is likely to not be able to connect and talk to people online.
While it may seem like a generational perspective on control and agency, the research data is beginning to highlight how different users use the terms interchangeably. In either case, there is an underlying concern for the safety of young users, but perhaps it is seen through different eyes for different applications.