One effect of working with teens is that I pause whenever I start clucking at some boneheaded thing a teenager has done on social media. One name — Anthony Weiner, the New York politician who crashed and burned twice over his sexting habit — reminds me that adulthood is no guarantee of good judgment.
We adults should be concerned about what our kids and grandkids are doing on social media. But rather than being quick to tut, threaten and punish, as school officials in Rogers were recently over a student’s two-word tweet, we need to work harder to understand how teens use social media and help them develop the sort of skill and judgment we foster when they learn to drive.
Consider this: The consequences of a fender-bender are far less serious than a major misstep on social media. Yet I’d guess that most of us spend more time practicing and monitoring our kids’ driving skills than their behavior on social media.
In part, that’s because monitoring social-media use is harder to do. When too many adults got onto Facebook, teens shifted to other platforms: Snapchat, Instagram, ask.fm. A determined teen will always be a few steps ahead of parents and school officials, particularly when it comes to technology.
Rather, the goal of parents, teachers, coaches and other adults who work with teens should be to understand their social-media use and promote a clear understanding of rights and responsibilities, impact and consequences. If one or two brave Rogers students had informed adults early on about the offensive sexual rumors and boasts being posted on ask.fm, the incident would have never made the newspapers.
That’s a big reason ThreeSixty Journalism, a youth journalism program I direct at the University of St. Thomas, created www.protectmyrep.org last summer. The online “reputation repair kit for teens” is designed not to intimidate teens but to educate and empower them.
Protectmyrep.org is part instruction and part reality check. It shows teens how to increase privacy settings and repair past mistakes. Teens can watch short videos in which an employer, college counselor, Army recruiter and others describe how they monitor social media and judge young people based on what they see.
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman explains that teens have free-speech rights. But when a teen threatened to shoot up Edina High School and posted photos of himself holding a gun, Freeman’s office had to take the threat seriously.
Now schools are inviting ThreeSixty’s staff members to come and help their teachers, parents and teens understand the great power and lure of social media — as well as its risks. One of the state’s new Common Core standards requires that high school students learn to “recognize ethical standards and safe practices in social and personal media communications, and understand the consequences of personal choices.”
Few teachers feel equipped to tackle this massive task. They need training and good resources. And they need help from parents, coaches and other adults who care about teens.
Parents of teens agree to “let me make some mistakes and help me learn from them.” Teens acknowledge: “I know that the photos and videos I post, and everything that I write about myself and others online, can be saved and shared without my knowing. Therefore, I will not post anything online that I wouldn’t want my family, teachers, college admissions officers, or future employers to see.”
The ACLU of Minnesota has good info for teens about their free-speech rights and responsibilities.
So when you find yourself tempted to tut, do this instead: Find out more about what social-media tools your teens use and what they like about them. Monitor their use, but don’t stalk. React offline to things that concern you.
Guide them to good information. Defend their rights to free speech and talk about responsibilities as well. Above all, keep asking, talking, learning.
Lynda McDonnell is a former journalist and the director of ThreeSixty Journalism, a youth journalism program at the University of St. Thomas.