Even though it’s not very old by many standards, social networking is ancient in the technical world where things shift so quickly you can hardly blink or you’ll miss an entire company’s rise and fall.
It seems that whether we like it or not, social networking and social media is here to stay. It’s the way we communicate; It’s altered the way we communicate—“friend” now being a verb as well as a noun. However, for as much as we use it, there are many people who are concerned about what it might be doing to us, to how we communicate and what we communicate and how much we communicate with each other. Social media seems to blur the lines of public and private, and there is a whole generation growing up with that blurred vision of what to share with everyone. Some worry about teens becoming addicted to social media. There are also concerns about social networking actually being rather anti-social and creating those kinds of situations—envision “stalking” someone’s Facebook page. Stalking in “real” life is bad. We all know that “stalking her does not mean ‘I love you’.” It doesn’t even have to go that far, though. Most of us have been taught that eavesdropping is impolite at best. You don’t stand and listen to someone having an argument in public. But, checking up on people through Facebook without their knowledge is perceived as okay. Reading a very public argument that is had on Facebook where other “friends” on both sides might join in is socially acceptable.
Or is it?
Teens have always teamed up against each other in their cliques. The friendships that many teens have last almost as long as some of those tech companies of today—blink and they’re gone. And, because teens are learning how to behave as adults, what is important to them, and how they see themselves, those interactions can be really messy. They often are. It’s just that now that process is more public. We pay attention to it more because we can see it, read it later, share it with our “friends.” And that is the frightening part of social networking.
It’s not the behavior that is so different, it’s the venue. And teens use the space as though they were having an argument in the bathroom, showing pictures from the weekend at a locker, or making plans on the phone or over a lunch table where at most a few people might overhear or see. When something is posted online, it’s public. There’s a record of it. And that record doesn’t go away. (Did you know that Facebook owns the information you post there? They keep a copy of everything. Do you want Mark Zuckerberg to have your stuff?) It’s certainly something to think about, your digital footprint—which is every site you visit, every place your name is online, everything you write, every picture you post. Many adults feel as though it’s the Wild West out there in the land of social networking. It’s every man, woman, or child for him/herself. Not quite the Zombie Apocalypse, but getting there and possibly that scary for some people. But, just like with zombies, running away or hiding out will not help.
So, how do we get teens to think about that without sounding like the Whaa-Whaa-Whaa adults of Charlie Brown's world?
There are, after all, lots of great things about social media, too. It offers the opportunity for teens to improve their reading and writing skills, if nothing else. Every time they post, read other’s comments, tweet, search, or add to a wiki, they are reading and writing. And when you are counting characters, it’s amazing how powerful some of their words can be. Social networking gives them a voice, a place where they can express themselves and have other people interact with their work, thoughts, and ideas.
Social media gives teens a sense of community, which they are naturally looking for. They want a place to call their own, a place to hang out with their friends. But that can’t be all. In a community, there are also responsible adults (unless you happen to be in Michael Grant’s Gone series). Teens need to know and understand that there is a time and a place for everything in social media, just as in the real world. There is a difference in language choice, topic choice, photos, behavior when there are “adults in the room.” Teens already understand this, for the most part, because they experience the differences in acceptability of behavior and language from the classroom to the work place to their living rooms whether with their friends or grandparents. We have to help them understand that while it is “easy” to type something on a keyboard, it’s public and lasting as soon as they do it. Even if they delete it soon after. It’s a community, and communities have rules. I think they get that. And for them, that sense of community is super important. It can be a way for people to connect and stay connected. But, there has to be guidance from adults, who must be present to guide, to show them the way.
We have to teach them how to be safe and smart—businesses and colleges use social media widely. Teens have to know how to interact in a way that will benefit them. As for social media addiction--it's real, but if it weren’t social media, it would likely be something else for those kids. It’s not the media that is the problem, it’s the behavior. And addressing the behavior is where we guide them. They have to learn about boundaries with our guidance, without having to learn the hard way, just like we have always done with raising and teaching our kids.
We encourage those things by first and foremost being present. We need to model the behavior we want to see in teens. We need to interact with them in ways that are meaningful and talk about the importance of care being taken when on line. We need to make it obvious to them that while no one can see them while they are typing, it’s as though they are sharing their lives, their thoughts, their anger, their happiness, and their fears with everyone. Responsibility is the key, not hiding behind a couple of different Facebook pages (one for friends and one that it’s okay for the parents to see—the age old kid covering his eyes feeling “if they can’t see me, I’m not there” trick).
Instead, we engage them in purposeful ways with social media in educational experiences, for example:
· Use Flickr as a way to inspire creative writing pieces.
· Use Animoto or VoiceThread as a way for students to collaborate and create a book trailer, and encourage the usage of materials available with Creative Commons copyright.
· Have discussions that encourage students to come up with ways that social media is helpful and hurtful to them.
· Have students create a video to show how to adjust privacy settings on Twitter and Facebook and discuss why those settings are important.
· Set up a school wiki page where there are discussions of importance to the school community and where each person’s thoughts are valued and heard.
· Encourage students to share what they are reading within the community on Library Thing.
These are just a few ways to get involved with teens in their own digital world. And we have to. Or social networking and media will increasingly feel like High Noon, and teens will be more like Zombies have come for their digital brains.
Find out more:
Pew Internet and American Life Project
Born Digital by John Palfrey
Pew Internet on Teens
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