When It Comes To Social Media – I Say Bring On The Strangers

The slide above was the opening slide in a presentation to parents last week at the high school that my children attend. As I sat waiting for the presentation to begin, I felt sick to my stomach regarding the message that would be delivered to the other parents who were in the audience. Then again, when I saw that this session would be led by law enforcement officers I have to admit that I expected a heavy dose of fear.

The presenter introduced himself saying, “I would love to tell you that at the end of the presentation you will feel very good about yourself” and then proceeded to go through a list of various symbols which represented various social media tools and described why parents should be concerned about each of them. The low point of the whole evening was a video about a young woman named Alicia who was kidnapped when she was 13 by a sexual predator she met online and then held hostage in another state. Later on, the officer role-played a psychopath who had found a child online and then stalked him and kidnaped him without leaving a trace. “It’s your job to communicate with your kids before we pull them out of a hole in the ground,” he told us.

To be fair, the presenter works for the state of NH task force that deals with internet crimes against children. I can only imagine the horrific cases that he and his colleagues deal with. Furthermore, I am extremely grateful that we have individuals committed to dealing with the individuals who use the internet to hurt children. Later on the officer did weave in some personal stories of dealing with his own teenagers and some good parenting tips for keeping tabs on teenagers and their online activities. He advised parents to have a central place in the house for devices to be left after 9 p.m. and to have all of the passwords for the social media accounts of their children. He also shared some positive repercussions from social media use and concluded with “Social media is going nowhere and we have to get on top of it.”

The Message That Wasn’t Heard

However, the message that wasn’t heard was that social media tools are neither good or bad, it is the people typing the keystrokes that are good or bad.  Just because we are hearing horrific stories does not mean that they are the norm.  As Danah Boyd stated in her book  It’s Complicated:The Social Lives of Networked Teens, “It’s critical to recognize that technology doesn’t create these problems, even if it makes them more visible and even if new media relished using technology as a hook to tell salacious stories about youth.” Boyd’s book should be a community read in every school community to help parents make sense of the foreign territory in which their children spend so much time.  

Without supporting and educating parents on the use of social media tools, we will not be able to move past the misguided perception that they are something to be feared. The fact of the matter is that your digital footprint is also rapidly becoming your resume. We need to move beyond fear and start developing a comfort level in supporting our kids to create impressive online portfolios. Messages like the one I heard this past week are more likely to have parents denying access rather than supporting positive usage.

Social Media Has Connected Me With Some Amazing Strangers

Personally, I have met countless strangers online who have taught me more than I could have ever dreamed of.  In fact, I add more strangers daily to my Personal Learning Network (PLN) in the hopes of learning even more new things from educators around the globe who share my passion for supporting learners. These connections have opened countless doors for me that would not have been possible without my use of social media tools. We need to show parents these types of examples of what can happen for their students when they take advantage of the connections that are at their fingertips. 

While there have been a number of stories about students who have lost opportunities due to social media use (i.e. They Loved Your G.P.A. Then They Saw Your Tweets and One Bad Tweet Can Be Costly To A Student Athlete), my worry is that these stories will cause students to go on lockdown with their accounts and operate under an alias or delete accounts all together. In a recent conversation with a former stranger, Alan Katzman the founder of Social Assurity, I was told that colleges take it as a red flag if they don’t find anything about an applicant online.  In my opinion, it means one of two things to the college. Either you deleted some bad stuff or you are antisocial, neither of which looks good. The former stranger also told me that Cornell became the first school in the country this year to accept students solely based on their social media profile. Cornell allowed students to apply to their MBA program using LinkedIn Profiles.

There is no doubt in regards to the direction things are headed for our students and social media. The only question that remains is how many of them will be hampered by scared adults who are getting a jaded picture offered by someone with a narrow point-of-view? 

For me, I’ll continue to push the power of building a network of strangers into a powerful PLN!

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