Why the “Social” Part of Social Media is So Important for Adolescents

Smartphones_back

As parents and educators, we often hear (and engage in) complaints about teens and social media. What we don’t often talk about is what drives their behavior, but if we are to have meaningful conversations with students about social media use, it helps to understand it.

One key point to remember is that, as human beings, we are neurobiologically wired for connection. Our brains are designed to reward us for being part of a social network and alert us that something is wrong if we are feeling isolated. Without connection to others, we suffer. This phenomenon is especially pronounced during our adolescent years which accounts for the extraordinary drive to find others with whom we belong.

I remember my parents’ frustration at the endless hours I spent on the phone every evening, the 10-foot cord stretched down the hallway so I could tuck myself away in my room with the door shut and talk to friends. Like most teens, I craved connection. The 8 hours a day I spent with friends at school wasn’t enough. Today’s teens are the same, but they have different technologies available to them than we did.

There are so many examples in the media of the ways adolescents use social media to harass each other, but we don’t often look at the ways they use it to make each others’ lives better. FaceTime has become a great way for students to help each other with homework or work on group projects. Individual Instagram accounts have allowed teens to see a different side of their peers – learning about other interests they have outside of school. Social media as a whole enables students who live in geographically distant areas to connect around common passions or struggles and can lead to some pretty amazing activism.

Overall, it seems that adolescents haven’t changed that much over the years, but the tools they use to engage socially have. The key as parents and educators is for us to acknowledge that teens will always find ways to create and maintain strong social networks and use our wisdom and influence to help them understand how to use those tools in a way that builds them up and flexes their social-emotional muscles. Asking lots of open-ended questions about how and why they use certain social media platforms can help adults learn what kind of connection is most important to an individual student, and it can give them some insight and self-awareness. It isn’t uncommon for teens to start doing something because their peers are doing it, but if we can encourage them to reflect on whether it is filling a need, they are more likely to make good choices about how and when to repeat that behavior.

Removing an adolescent’s ability to engage with their peers by taking their phone away or blocking Internet access doesn’t eliminate the drive to connect, and it can harm your relationship. Helping teens find ways to maintain productive, healthy social connections, both in person and virtually, by acknowledging their need to bond with others and enabling it whenever possible will go a long way toward building trust.

Question: What’s More Important…

standing up for my principles, or being nice?

I had a teen ask me this question and I thought it was particularly astute. In the age of social media, we are all free to offer our opinions on any subject any time. Whether it’s responding to a friend’s Facebook or Instagram post or a news item that we come across, in many cases, letting people know what we think is as simple as a few keystrokes.

Unfortunately, things tend to be pretty polarized on social media. We have become accustomed to a certain number of characters that we will pay attention to before we get bored, and most important issues are framed in terms of Right and Wrong, Agree or Disagree. There is very little room for nuance and gray area and, often, it is the most supportive and the least supportive comments that get all the glory.

So if you feel strongly about a particular issue – whether it be dress codes or same-sex marriage, leaving your pet in a hot car during the day or premarital sex, it can be really tempting to add your two cents. My answer to this teen was to stop a minute and assess the motivation behind the response. Often, we get caught up in the swell of emotion that comes from reading about something we either strongly agree or disagree with and we don’t take the time to think about why we think it’s important to share our thoughts.

*If you are responding because you want to tell someone else their opinion is wrong (and set it up against your beliefs which are “right,”) commenting might not be the best thing to do.

*If you are making a point to exclude an entire group of people based on some belief they hold or lifestyle they lead that you disagree with, you aren’t really standing up for your principles, you’re bashing someone else’s. I know there’s a fine line between those two things, but it’s a line nonetheless. [One way to think about it is to say that you’re throwing a party, but you extend the invitation in a public place and say that anyone who identifies as transgendered is NOT invited because you don’t support that lifestyle. That’s not standing up for your beliefs because you started it. You’re free to have that opinion, but since it wasn’t challenged, you’re carefully couching your disrespect for others by claiming it is standing up for yourself.]

*If you are standing up for someone or a group of people that don’t have a voice or whose beliefs haven’t been represented in the conversation, it may well be a worthwhile response. I say this with caution because often people who post things online are only interested in hearing the comments that support their own side of things. Before hitting ‘enter,’ you might want to assess what it is you hope to achieve with your comment. If you simply want to go on record saying you support another opinion, that’s fine. If you’re hoping to change minds or make other people feel bad or rile others up, you’re not standing up for your beliefs, you’re picking a fight.

Teens & Social Media: What’s a Parent to Do?

FullSizeRenderLast week, the Pew Research Center released their most recent findings on teens and social media use. Much of it may not be a surprise to parents and educators, but it does give some important information about what kids are doing.

Some key notes in the report include:

  • 92% of teens ages 13-17 report going online daily
  • 24% of teens report that they are online “almost constantly”
  • Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat remain the most popular sites for kids
  • 71% of teens are using multiple social media sites
  • texting is a big part of most teens’ lives, with the average teen sending and receiving more than 30 texts per day

All of this is to say that online communications are a huge part of American teenagers’ lives. Most of us probably knew that already. And many of us have heard horror stories about the destructive ways kids can use social media, so what can we do about it?

First of all, we need to recognize that this phenomenon isn’t going away. Perhaps you can remember sitting on the floor of your bedroom as a teenager, the phone cord stretched down the hall so you can close your door, talking to your friends for hours until your parents yelled at you to do your homework or hang up so someone else could use the phone. Humans are social creatures and teenagers have an even greater need than most for social connection outside their family. It is not surprising that they are taking full advantage of social media to explore relationships.

But, we can help our kids learn how to communicate positively and with intention by discovering a little bit more about how and why they use the social media platforms they use.  We can have conversations with them about purpose and values and being mindful about their online interactions and The SELF Project is here to help with that.

We have designed a survey that digs a little deeper in to the “whys” and “hows” of social media use. Once armed with that information, school staff and parents can meet with Kari to decipher it and talk about ways to help teens use these powerful tools to enhance their lives.  Contact us today at kari@theselfproject.com to get this conversation started at your teen’s school.