Thoughts on Social Media and Youth: a few random thoughts on our role as parents

I have been involved over the past year in shaping our school’s social media policy. I am becoming more and more interested in the subject, mainly because it is an issue that affects me in my professional life as well as a parent. The conclusion I’ve come to is simple. We should expect kids to behave online the way we expect them to behave in realtime (as opposed to faketime? That is a weird expression, but oddly appropriate to describe how youth view their online interactions- more on that later).

Being a digital citizen is an extension of being an actual citizen- the same principles are in play.

Which means as parents our roles are the same as they always were:  to provide guidance and hope to heck they are at least half-listening.

Now, as you can see from the fact that I write a blog, have a facebook account, a twitter account and a linkedin account, I am not exactly opposed to social media. I use it to connect to friends, as a way to connect with other professionals and even as a marketing tool (which is a fancy way of saying I push the links to this post on my other feeds and engage in other shameless self-promotion). I think there is a huge potential in social media for connecting like-minded individuals, as well as powerful tools for learning.

In a nutshell fellow parents:  there is no need to throw the baby out with the bath water. Blow out the match on your tech bonfire and have a nice cup of chamomile tea while we discuss this.

Just thought we needed a visual…

That is not to say there aren’t any concerns. There are. But they are extensions of the same concerns we face with our kids concerning non-media: they all have to do with how to be in the world. How you treat others and how you want others to treat you. And of course, how to protect yourself (mostly, from yourself as it turns out).

Having said that, although the challenges kids face stem from the same issues, they do have some unique aspects.

Let us address some of these concerns individually, shall we?

1. Sexual Predators
We have all heard the stories.Young girl enters chat room and starts a relationship online. Boy asks her to meet in person and she agrees. Young boy turns out to be a 50-year old creepazoid with a windowless van. Insert horrific consequences here.

I just attended a seminar by Alissa Sklar  who writes the blog Risk within Reason. It was an informational session for parents at our school about social media and ways to approach your own child’s use of these tools. She mentioned something people tend to forget- most kids are sexually assaulted by people in their realtime lives- relatives, family friends, coaches.  She also mentioned that incidents of sexual assault have declined steadily since 1993 according to Stats Can.

Does that mean we shouldn’t worry? No. We should always worry. Worrying is what we do as parents. I am very imaginative when it comes to worrying. I worry about my kids getting their scarves trapped in escalators and choking to death.  But does that mean my kids are not allowed to take an escalator? No.

Instead, I give them a set of ground rules that are so simple they seem almost stupid to mention (but that never stopped me):

1. Never post any personal information online (address, telephone number, last name, birthdate, etc.) Now, you will say that I’m being a hypocrite- my name appears online everywhere. The difference is I am an adult, who’s brain has finally matured (or so they say) and who uses social media mostly as a professional tool. Just so you are wondering, experts (I guess that means brain scientists), say the children’s brains don’t fully become functional (like the death star!) until their early twenties.

Which means I got married and had my first child when my brain was still growing.

Hmmm. But that’s another story.

2. Never friend anybody you don’t know very well.

3. Never meet someone you met online in person.

It is the same as telling your children to never take candy from a stranger. Never go anywhere with a stranger even if he (or she) has “lost their dog and needs help finding it.”

See? As soon as we drill this into our children’s heads with the cordless Dewalt of repetition, we feel much more secure.

2. Cyberbullying
This is a big one these days, in fact bigger than number 1. (Isn’t number two always bigger than number 1? Sorry. Couldn’t help the scatalogical connotation) It is the cause of way more problems and is way more prevalent.

Why? because the kids who would not normally be the bully in a physical setting feel like they are able to say whatever they want online without fear of consequences (which is the untruest of the untrue- there are always consequences). Kids who seem shy, hard working and obedient in a school setting can turn out to be the worst of the cyber-bullies. This is where certain aspects of online behaviour needs to be emphasized.

Of course, it can all be summed up in one simple, effective phrase:

Don’t be a jerk, either online or off.

However, there is also context to deal with. Tone. Nuance. All the facial expressions, the bodily gestures, the tone of voice that allows people to gage the nuance of our meaning. That is all missing when you are commenting on someone’s wall or when you are IMing your friend. Kids need to be aware (and they not always are) that words without all these props can mean very different things.

There is also the problem of distance- it is way easier to be mean to someone (or to break up with someone or….insert bad situation here) when you don’t have to witness their reaction.

It is imperative that we talk to our kids about the consequence of their actions, but it is the same talk as we would give a five year old about hitting her friend and grabbing the barbie away. How would you feel if someone did that to you?

Oh- there is also the problematic equation of chats and comments being permanent. These things can come back to haunt you and, like anything negative you’ve ever done in your life, it probably will, if only in the fact that the comment/text/IM can be rehashed by the person over and over again instead of just fading away like a nonchalant verbal jab in the playground (although it is debatable how much those actually fade- at least you don’t have a physical reminder of it).

There is also an interesting side to this sort of behaviour that I will address in #4- faketime.

3. Anti-social behaviour
 I woke up this morning, groggily poured myself my coffee and opened my computer. The first thing I see is this article on i09 (my favouritest sci-fi site ever) about a study linking the number of Facebook friends to the density of certain areas of the brain. Which part of the brains do you think it is? Try to guess…


If you guessed the areas of your brain that correspond to social perception and associative memory, then you would be right. Now calm down, nobody’s saying Facebook makes you smarter. No. I am  saying, however,  that people who use it are social- online and off.

Which debunks the whole myth that Facebook and other social media tools are making our children anti-social. In fact, research shows that kids are most likely to friend and communicate with people they know in realtime. It is just another aspect of their social interactions.

In fact, if your kids are spending too much time on facebook, maybe the problem is that they are too social. Have you ever thought of that? Huh? Huh? (Coming from the mouth of a person who’s biggest wish is for a door so that she can be left in peace for a few moments).

4. Posting inappropriate images, comments online or the creation of faketime
You know how it was important in high school to project a certain image of yourself? Whether you were a jock, a popular girl, a punk rocker or a nerd (or whatever the hell you were) this has extended to the carefully manicured lawns of teen facebook pages. Teens will spend an inordinate amount of time cultivating their online persona- from getting professional photographs of themselves for their profile photos, to posting certain images and comments online that will make them a contender in facebook hottest chicks page. Some will cultivate a badass image by posting photos of themselves smoking up or drinking. Others will use it in a more positive but no less stressful manner by cultivating their persona as an activist or as a way to help them get into the right university.

How do I know this? My friend is a sociologist who researches youth and the internet and we were talking about this phenomena. Part of the explanation for this behaviour is that social media sites represent one of the few unsupervised field of play for this generation (talking about privileged, middle class first world kids of course). Their lives are so structured, the activities so numerous, the paranoia about public spaces so great they no longer have the hours in the park before dinner, the hanging out in front of the 7/11 (I’ve dated myself with this reference, haven’t I?).

And as teenagers, what does play consist of? Of figuring out who the heck you are, primarily. Who didn’t go through phases? I remember at one point I would only dress in skirts and blouses from the 1940s. I also had a pretty extended grunge phase, which is still not quite over, and a nostalgic mod phase which also is not quite over. Although I didn’t see it as such at the time, these were all attempts to see which manifestation fit best.

My friend mentions over and over in her research that kids say that parents don’t understand, that they take what they post online too seriously, that everyone knows it isn’t real.

In very real ways, teens view their interactions online as play, or faketime (which would explain some pretty stupid posts).

I am fascinated and a little terrified by this, as they have chosen a very public space to play the game of identity, a space where everything is recorded and your every mistake archived.

What is important here is to talk to your kids about this. Duh, I know. But don’t go all medieval on their butts- there is a positive way to use these tools and ways to manage your online profile. Sklar recommends setting up a google alert with your name, to make sure that you can keep track of what people are saying about you. (I haven’t done that yet- but just might. Or maybe I have and nobody talks about me, which is more likely the case). But certain ground rules, little rules of thumb are handy for this:

  • Never post anything in anger.
  • Never post anything you wouldn’t want your mother/father/grandfather/aunt etc. to see
  • Oh, and no photos of you drinking, smoking or doing anything else that might come back to bite you in virtual patootie.
  • And for the love of pete, Keep your clothes on!

What we should be talking with about with our kids:

What is privacy? How do they view it? Why is it that the onus of keeping our information secure is on us and not Facebook? Is it worth sacrificing our privacy to use these tools? What should be the role of the law when it comes to Privacy and privacy violations online?

How important is your privacy to you?

My friend the sociologist makes an excellent point when she says that it will be this generation of digital natives that will shape the way privacy is viewed in the future, the way we deal with these issues as a society. Beginning the conversation with them now is vital.

Whoah. Long post and I didn’t even say half the things I wanted to say. I promise to be more short-winded in the future…

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