Talking to Teens about Social Media: advice from the classroom.

woman sitting on sofa with MacBook Air

OK, real talk for parents of today’s children specifically tweens & teens. Today, I spent a full day with middle schoolers talking about who they are online and what decisions they make with social media. My goal this year for when I do these presentations is to not use canned curriculum but really take the opportunity to present myself on the level of someone on their side.

I show the kids in the classroom what my Instagram feed looks like and I talk about being authentic and who I say I am. I love seeing them realize I know things about their world. One of those things that never fails to shock kids of my almost-cool existence is my awareness of their fake Instagram (finsta, spam, etc.). When I, an adult, reference this term to them they hang heads, giggle, and grow red depending on the grade – sometimes they point at others, but either way they relate. It’s like they almost think that I’ve acknowledged a secret that no one else is supposed to know. Fake Instagram for Teens

What’s With the Multiple Accounts?

Most of the time, kids create these accounts to have smaller numbers of people follow them so they can be honest and truer than the false and forced happy them they often feel the need to portray on their regular account.

Does every kid do this? No, but is it extremely common? Yes. Today specifically in the seventh-grade group that I had which was 65 individuals, more than half raised their hand when I asked a question about whether or not they had one of these. I bet more would have as well if they weren’t skeptical I’d wag my finger in response – another unrelatable adult.

But honestly, I get it, the concept of a Finsta. This world has high expectations and kids with spam accounts use it to post more often about their REAL life the way social media was intended without putting on airs of “everything is perfect” posting. And really it sounds fine – until it goes wrong.

How does it go wrong you ask? Well, they get comfortable enough to single out others on this account, bully, or post inappropriate and poor decisions. Maybe they confide too deeply in an audience they trust that betrays them or fails to tell an adult. As I told them today, even if you only have 50 finsta followers, there’s more than one that’s capable of selling out your secrets. More than one who will someday become a frenemy that screenshots and shares your post with the world.

Advice for Parents

So how do you talk about whether or not this is good or bad with your kids without scaring them to run for the social media hills? Well, maybe there’s nothing to hide, right? But clearly, there is if kids feel the need to create this alter ego that Grandma and Neighbor Jodie can’t follow? It doesn’t automatically mean they’re up to no good – but it gives them a false sense of privacy that doesn’t exist online. I repeat – does not exist.
So as someone who’s not a parent but that has these types of conversations with kids every day I urge you to consider the following as a discussion over dinner or in the next car ride between activities.

Ask, Who Are You when you’re on Social Media?

Ask them “Are you, you, when you’re on social media?” Example: list three qualities and three interests of theirs with them, and see if you can find evidence of their true self in their feeds.
Are they the same band loving, soccer playing, kind and honest kid on Snapchat or Instagram OR are they uncharacteristically gossipy, mean, or vapid? Maybe they only post about things they think are cool to others. Whatever it is ask them and see what they say when you give them examples of what you’d expect to see. And if they’re two people, consider which one should you encourage them to leave behind.

Remind them that Private isn’t Private when Online.

That’s an oxymoron. First of all, there are ways around that, I promise – but also – your followers today could be tomorrows enemies. Discuss their privacy settings, and the fact that our friends don’t always stay that way. Want to see me at prom on my Myspace in 2009 with a caption that says “Stay Classy Not Trashy?” me either, but it’s there. Keep in mind, this privacy issue does not just apply to cliques and old friendships but also to false identities and fake accounts. See the next item.

Teach them How to Verify Who they Talk With

There are predators, scammers, catfishers, and trolls – and this honestly sounds like a videogame world. Kids need to know how to decide if they should continue talking to someone who reaches out to them or block them. This is a world where every kid today in class told me their parent has had recently talked to them about Momo – every – but only a third said that their parents had discussed strangers online with them, ever. I’m not claiming that one is more dangerous than the other. Kids can get exposed to so many people and things without careful attention and thoughtful discussions. Remind them to check to see for mutual friends, locations and clues that show they are who they say they are, other linked legitimate accounts, and more ways to verify a follower’s identity.

Ask them to Empathize

Thinking before they post is so important not only because of the impact on their own future but their impact on that of others. “How would you feel if that happened to you?” Is a question for every parent’s social media bullying handbook. When I explain why kids shouldn’t engage in commenting on fake accounts, rude memes, or more – that’s the first question I ask.

Last, Tell them to Make their Online Footprint a Resume

I tell kids to make an online footprint more like resume by acknowledging the good that they do in the world on social media instead of just worrying about hiding the bad. Tomorrow’s citizens will most certainly be utilizing our actions online in this exact manner. And yes, that will happen, Linda, whether you send your kid to a school that uses technology super well, one that has home grown grass fed paper inside of a tech-free world, or even if you lock every device, Wi-Fi, and their screen time. As I put today, how can I Google them and want to hire them and not fire them? Because inevitably this is their future.

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