Teaching the Risks, Rewards, and Realities of Social Media

Communication via social media may be new, but it is not a passing fad. While it is crucial for our children to learn formal language used for business, they must also learn how to communicate using expanding digital platforms. Need proof that it isn't a fad? Look at Pew's results tracking teen social media use from 2006 to 2012:
Source: Pew Research Center

Concern #1: Privacy

Our children need to learn how to protect their geolocation and contact information. Once that information is available, any savvy tech user can find out a great deal about their lives. It takes only some sly text messages, voicemails, and emails to gather the information needed to steal an identity. A more talented hacker can take only name, address and a few other bits and get everything they need.

Concern #2: Photos

These go along with privacy, but we also need to dig deeper. What are the photos teens are posting? Are they all positive? Are some potentially embarrassing? What about the photos teens post of their friends, or enemies? Could those be ruining others' digital footprints?

Concern #3: Revealing Vulnerabilities

Beyond that, what are our teens sharing about their fears, worries, and insecurities with strangers online? And does this mean they are not sharing with the parents, educators, and other adults who care about them and want to help them? I'm not insinuating that people should be unrealistically perfect with their online identities, but we do not want our children reaching out for help to strangers who may not have their best interest at heart.

Avoiding social media altogether is not the answer either. If there are so many risks to sharing this information online, why are teens (and adults) doing it in growing numbers? There must be some rewards that outweigh the risks if the statistics from Pew are real.

The best description of the rewards I have heard personally is through the phrase Ambient Intimacy. I heard about it when a friend, Dan Whalen, posted about it on Facebook. Ambient Intimacy is a term to describe the types of relationships that we build when we share bits and pieces of our lives online, and when we see the bits and pieces of others' lives online. They are described as "pixilated relationships."  They are not categorically better or worse than in-person relationships, just different. Here's a description:

We must teach teens to understand the similarities and differences between these online pixilated relationships and face-to-face personal or professional relationships. The truth is that our teens, and many adults, can't imagine life without both face-to-face and online relationships. It would be unrealistic to ask them to leave their online relationships behind. Actually, online relationships are incredibly important when it comes to building a strong foundation for a rich adult personal and professional life.

At the same time, while most social media users are experts at being clever - with silly selfies and pictures of fancy food - they need to learn to round out their online identities. Some digital citizenship experts call it a footprint, others call it a tattoo. No matter what you call it, millennials need to understand the impact their digital identity will have on their lives, personally (when their dates Google them), academically (when admissions officers Google them), and professionally (when their interviewers Google them).

Answers, But Not Solutions

We can teach this!

We do it by:

1. Modeling it with our online presence and allowing our students to "Google" us. If we are going to expect our students to keep their online identities clean, we should model it. For years I encouraged my students to look me up. Not everything you'll find about me is perfect, but it is the real me and I know my employers, family, and friends have seen it all.

This doesn't mean we should follow our students' social media accounts. Teens deserve some semblance of privacy and space from their teachers online. Plus, most school Responsible Use Policies prohibit teachers from following students.

Need an example of how this works in real life in a real school?  I was in a meeting with a 13 year old 7th grader earlier this school year because he has used Instagram in a concerning way. I told him I wanted to show him my Instagram to prove that I'm a fan of the platform. He shied away as if I was revealing something private to him. I wasn't. My Instagram is open, and I think carefully about that every time I post. It was as if a bell went off in his head before my eyes. If an educator at his school is happy to share her Instagram with him, perhaps he can make his Instagram into something he would be proud to show his teachers. It was a rewarding conversation, and it is a conversation that could happen in schools everywhere.

2. Coaching and encouraging them to post the work they're proudest of right there on their Facebook or Instagram with their other posts. While some students have those silly selfies and fancy food mentioned above, others might not have much of a social media presence at all. I feel strongly that schools should not force students to make their lives public, but education should include information about the risks and rewards of sharing online.

For instance, I have researched any company, school, or professional I have ever worked with. If I cannot find a significant online identity, generally it takes me more time to assess whether the professional relationship will be valuable for either of us. That doesn't mean that things won't work out, but it does mean that I tend to be more skeptical going into it. Now, not all professions are so technology and social media focused, but all professionals do use technology to communicate and share their ideas. Online presence is essential.

Even high school students, like Timmy Sullivan from Burlington, Massachusetts are recognizing this. I'm starting to get more and more Linked In connection requests from my students, and I'm thrilled to see them building their academic and professional identities.

3. Celebrating and sharing the work of students and colleagues that are posted. Use your social media reach to extend the reach of those who deserve it. The past four years of my teaching career included students turning in their work almost exclusively via electronic means. In many cases, they were posting on blogs, sharing on YouTube, or using some other web 2.0 technology to create and share their ideas. Not all of them made their work accessible to the public (We talked about privacy settings and they made thoughtful decisions about whether they wanted to share their work. Most did.) but when a student did and that work was exceptional, I did my best to amplify their academic voice. Whether it was clever and funny or deep and meaningful, students loved seeing their work get noticed by people outside the four walls of our classroom.

There are no true solutions to all social media concerns. Every user has a different comfort level with how much information she/he is willing to reveal to family, friends, acquaintances, or strangers. We need to take the time to ask our children why they like social media and what concerns they have. When listening, even if you don't know the answers to their questions, take the time to look up those answers with them. There are risks and rewards to communicating and building relationships on social media, but there are risks and rewards to any kind of relationship. We must recognize that social media communications are not "less than" other communications. They are just different. Our job, as educators, is to help children develop the skills to communicate clearly and as their real selves in any situation: in person and online, with the written and spoken word, with body language and voice inflection, and - yes - even with emojis now and then.

Additional Resources:
The Educator's Guide to Social Media - ConnectSafely.org
Teens speak: Should students publish their school work online? - ConnectSafely.org


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