Cyberbullying and cyberstalking grab headlines, but the weight of social media research shows widespread benefits for teens who adeptly use Twitter, Facebook, and other online communities, according to a former University of Minnesota researcher.

How parents police social media usage should vary by their teens and their levels of maturity, said Christine Greenhow, an assistant professor in educational psychology at Michigan State University. But parents should help their teens develop social media skills, which can deepen their relationships and broaden their social support, said Greenhow, who conducted postdoc research on this topic at the U of M. Her studies particularly found benefits for low-income teens who gained deeper relationships and a greater sense of belonging through social media.

"There's quite a few benefits to social networking in terms of deepening your relationships, extending your relationships, and the depth of support you have to draw on when faced with import decision-making," Greenhow said. "Social media savvy is fast becoming a workplace necessity. Employers want to hire people who can use social media well and leverage their networks for business purposes. As teachers or parents, we want to be aware of that and say, 'well, how can we help our kids develop the social media savvy they need to be successful?' The first step to that is acknowledging that these are skills that kids need to develop."

(This is the latest in a "tech week" series of blog posts on electronic communications and technology and their impact on families. Email ideas for this series to Post comments below on the ground rules for social media usage in your households.)

So how can parents help? First, Greenhow said they should log on to the sites their children use and find out for themselves how they work. Second, Greenhow said they should read the terms of service (something their kids probably won't do) of these social media sites so they can guide their children on appropriate usage. Third, while social media is a forum for authenticity and self-expression, Greenhow said parents need to remind teens not to post anything that could be damaging if seen by prospective employers or educators. Parents also need to monitor their children for overuse, and set appropriate limitations.

Greenhow said the research has focused on teen usage of social media and not on preteens who override the age limits of sites such as Facebook and use them anyway. Concerns are valid about young people being ingenuous online to try to fit in or gain popularity, but Greenhow said studies show that most teens are networking with friends or acquaintances who already know who they are in real life.

"So you can't really be too fake because your network knows who you are," she said. "I still think it's important to put your best face forward. You don’t want to put something out there that would compromise your ability to do something you want to do in life, or give people the wrong impression about who you really are."

Greenhow said she doesn't dismiss the fear of children being bullied via social media. The relative facelessness of social media can make it easier for people to be cruel or say mean things that they wouldn't say face to face. But Greenhow said she is trying to promote the studied benefits of social media because the research results of these benefits haven't received as much public attention.


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