The Truth About Teens and Social Media

Research
When an educator asked students about how they interact online, here’s what he discovered
By: 
Carl Hooker

It’s interesting what different people think of when the words “social media” are mentioned. For parents, our minds drift to a couple of places, mainly “Facebook” and “bad things with teens.” For kids, it’s actually a very different experience. Looking at the definitions above (courtesy of Merriam-Webster), the technical definition of social media is “spending time together interacting and communicating (social) through a system which can be spread to a large number of people (media).”

This past month, I hosted multiple discussions with students of all ages when it comes to social media and technology. The first opportunity was with my very own Westlake High School students. The second was with the students of Casady School in Oklahoma City, OK, home of ed tech guru Wes Fryer (@wfryer). Here’s a link to his post about my visit. I wanted to use these opportunities as a chance to not only have conversations with kids about social media, but also pick their brains about what they think is happening online—and better yet, what they think adults think about their use of social media.

Here’s a breakdown of some of the challenges I did with students during our time together.

2-minute challenge

I challenged teams of three or four students to name as many social media platforms as they could in 2 minutes. While I knew this would bring about some silly answers, I also knew that the competitiveness would kick in at some point. Many of the teams had more than 25 different responses, including 32 from one team of middle school students. I did my best to collect these quickly and have students explain the ones I didn’t get.

Here are a couple of the lists from the Westlake group (excuse my bad handwriting):

Some of the usual suspects were shared by both groups:

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, Hangouts, Skype, Vine, Reddit and Tumblr

Some of the messaging faves:

Kik, WhatsApp, GroupMe, Text Free

Some not-so-usual suspects:

Google+, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Omegle, Soundcloud, MySpace, Weibo, 4Chan 

There were some mentions of dating sites as social media:

FarmersOnly, Tinder, Christian Mingle

There were some sites I have never heard of:

PhhhotoDiscordTwitch, and 9gag

And some we warn our kids about:

Yik Yak, Brighten, AfterSchool

Then things got interesting.

One of the students stood up and said “Amazon.” I went to write it down and paused. “You mean, like the place you go to buy stuff?”

Yes. The student began to explain his thinking. He said that if you recommend something you can actually use that space to interact with customers and companies, therefore making Amazon “social” in nature. Looking at our definition of social media stated above, I would say he’s actually on to something here. At that point, students began to mention many other platforms and places where they are social online. In addition to Amazon, they brought up NES (Nintendo Entertainment System), Google Docs, XBox Connect, Yelp, and text messaging.

This left me somewhat floored. Not only were these lists growing, but now everything could be social media? It actually reminded me of this video that Wes had shared with me a month ago. (Note: This is satire…not everything on the internet is real.)

Using comment sections on any site instantly turn it into a social media site. I don’t know about you, but I want to check out this new “Happy Fast Kitchen” site.

Agree/Disagree Challenge

The second activity we participated in was a game I call “Love/Hate” or “Agree/Disagree.” In this case, I asked students to stand or move to one side of the room if they agreed with the statement. If they disagreed, I asked them to stay seated or move to the other side of the room. Here are the questions and some of the results:

Statement 1: Cyberbullying is getting worse.

Agree: 65%

Disagree: 35%

At Casady school we were in a large performance hall, so I used my CatchBox to elicit audience response. It’s always a dangerous thing to give a teenager a microphone in a large crowd, but the kids at Casady were honest and respectful when answering. Here’s what it looked like.

Responses: Many of the students agreed with the statement with the rationale that, because there are so many more social media sites out there, there must be more cyberbullying. Some students mentioned the ease with which you could be anonymous now on many of these platforms, which makes it easier to cyberbully. Those that disagreed said that they felt their generation is much more aware of the permanence of their actions online and how everything has a trace, even if you think it’s anonymous. According to this report by U.S. News, cyberbullying has actually been on a steady decline since 2005.

Statement 2: You can post a photo, then delete it and it will be gone forever.

Agree: 0%

Disagree: 100%

Apparently students at both campuses have heard this loud and clear. Not a single student even stood up as a joke. They know that if it’s online, it could be accessed. However, when I relayed my story about my niece Jordan and her first run-in with SnapChat, it made some of them squirm in their seats. I told Jordan that I could hack the SnapChat server (like this guy) and access all the user accounts, including their photos. Her face began to turn pale as did the faces of many of the kids in the audience when I relayed that story. So while they believe in this statement, their actions may not necessarily follow suit when it comes to posting “temporary” photos.

Statement 3: Adults don’t understand what teens do on social media.

Agree: 50%

Disagree: 50%

Those that agreed with the statement mentioned in some cases that parents hear a negative story about an app or a kid on social media and assume that means only terrible things are happening online. Another mentioned that his parents just don’t take the time to ask and understand what an app is and how he is using it. One student summed it up by saying, “Imagine if their (adults) parents told them to stay off the phone because someone could potentially prank call them. That’s how we feel sometimes when it comes to social media and our parents.” For those who disagreed, they mentioned that parents are much more tech-savvy these days. They have smartphones, easy access to other parents (via social media, ironically) and can Google search just about anything.

Statement 4: I think my social media use could help me get into college or land my first job.

Agree: 50%

Disagree: 50%

Those who disagreed with the statement claimed that it depends on the type of job, which might make this statement false. They also said that they had been made so scared to get on social media that they hoped it didn’t hurt them in the future. Many of the students that agreed mentioned how it could help build their online profile and make connections that would help them in the future. One precocious 12-year old girl shared that “more and more colleges and businesses are looking at your online profile everyday. That means there is a great opportunity to use that profile to help you land a job or get into college.”

I relayed my own story of how I screen our ed tech applicants through social media. While it doesn’t hurt the applicants not to have anything online, it doesn’t help them either. This CareerBuilder.com press release goes into great detail about how many companies are looking at social media profiles and what they are finding that is either helping or hurting prospective employees.

Google Yourself Challenge

For the final challenge, I asked the students if they had ever Googled themselves. Most of them raised their hands. When I asked some of the students to share what they had discovered, there were some amazing and hilarious stories. One of the students mentioned that his name comes up as a local car dealership for Mini Coopers. Another said that he shares the name (and look) of a famous soccer player. When I asked them how many had Googled their teachers, about half the hands went up (along with some snickers and giggles). About the same number admitted to Google searching their parents—one teen mentioned that she had discovered that her dad had been part of a pretty famous rock band before her time.

As part of their “homework,” I asked the kids to consider things they could do to improve their online profile and also ways that they could use social media for good. I also asked those kids who were sitting during the statement about parents “not understanding” about social media to use this as an opportunity to have a discussion with mom and dad about all the good things they are doing online. I asked the parents to do the same at a parent talk later in the evening.

I’m sharing all of this because I think schools need to be having these conversations with kids and parents. We can bring in an Assistant DA to scare kids and parents away from social media, but the reality is, we need to work together on ways to understand these new methods of interacting, communicating, and, well, being social. That doesn’t happen when you tell kids what they should be doing. It happens when you ask kids what they think they should be doing. I’m hoping that if you’ve read this far, that you will try something similar with the kids in your school or neighborhood.

 

This article was originally posted on Hooker’s blog Hooked on Innovation.

Carl is the Director of Innovation & Digital Learning at Eanes ISD (TX). He is also the founder of the learning festival called iPadpalooza and the author of the six-volume Mobile Learning Mindset series of books, which offers practical knowledge and strategies for successful implementation of K-12 BYOD programs and 1:1 initiatives.

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