I am always pleased when I have the opportunity to speak openly with young people about their use of social media because I believe that it is our responsibility, as parents and educators, to openly discuss the negative and positive aspects of how teens are interacting with each other in the digital world. Last Monday, I visited Strathcona Tweedsmuir School in Calgary and talked about the following topics with students from Grade 6 to Grade 10:
Technology is a Tool Laptops and smartphones are tools that are not inherently good or bad. People choose to use them to either build or destroy. Teenagers (and other people) need to consider ethics and empathy when using technology. If they do this, they will be a positive force in the virtual world.
Digital Footprints What teenagers choose to put up in the virtual world is there forever. Choose to put of positive and creative stuff, and their digital footprint will be a good one. For example, if a student blogs about his interest in art and creates a website gallery of his creative work, then that is what the world will see about him. More and more, universities and employers are turning to the web to research their applicants. Having a great digital footprint will be very helpful in the future for teenagers.
Kindness and Cruelty The Pew Internet & American Life Project researched teen kindness and cruelty on social network sites, such as Facebook, in 2011. There research found that teens are predominantly kind and that a large number of teens stand up for others who are being harassed on social media. Other interesting facts from the survey (which, from my personal experience and surveying, reflects what is going on with Canadian teens) are that many online disputes are taken into the real world (a fight on Facebook becomes a real conflict at school, for example), teens and parents often have conflicts about the use of social media, and that teenagers are sexting less than they were two years ago.
Safety and Health It used to be that my biggest fear was a 45-year-old man posing as a 16-year-old girl on the internet. While online adult predators are still a concern (and there are a lot of "experts" making a lot of money ringing this alarm), from my experience, the greatest danger to teens is themselves and their peers. Sexting and the sharing of nude images (about 5% of 15-year-old teens have shared nude or semi-nude images of themselves; about 20% of 15-year-old teens have seen a nude or semi-nude image of someone they know). It is quite often groups of boys (perhaps pretending to be alone) who try to get girls to reveal their body through Skype or other online sharing sites. I overtly describe how these incidents occur so students are more able to stay away from these situations. The best thing a girl can do in this situation is to not engage and to block the person making the request, "got pics?". Teenagers are also sleeping with their smartphones. This is dangerous because they don't sleep very well and "nothing good happens after midnight" in the virtual world of teens.
The Possibilities and the Real World Teenagers are doing amazing things online. They have an opportunity to build their reputation by using social media for social good. Teenagers also have a responsibility to communicate all the positive and creative things they are doing and seeing online to the parents and teachers in their lives. By teaching the adults, teenagers will open minds about how they are using technology and this, in turn, will open doors for them in the future. The final message that I share with students is that they need to experience the real world by traveling and learning. Technology is a tool that can be used to communicate and explore, but the real world is the place to be.