In the era of Snapchat and Instagram, social media has become one of the most powerful tools for teenagers. But we often only hear one side of its powers.
In the new unnerving book “American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers,” we hear how girls destroy their reputations, slash their self-esteem and even lose their lives by accepting friend requests from strangers, getting cyberbullied and equating self-worth to Instagram likes. One high school sophomore recently told me she spends hours each day thinking about the Instagram caption she posts each night. The better the caption, the more likes.
While these stories are true and some of them can be frightening, parents must see the other side of the story - social media can propel girls, too.
Thanks to people like record producer DJ Khaled, positivity and encouragement are becoming just as powerful and newsworthy on social media as bullying. When one 17-year-old girl from Boston saw that she was voted “ugliest in school” on the platform Ask.fm, she responded to her cyberbullies through a Facebook post, explaining the importance of being confident in your own skin. Peers instantly shared her post, and it went viral, inspiring thousands of girls around the nation to value who they are.
Girls are using platforms like Snapchat, Twitter and Instagram in positive and powerful ways that fuel their reputations and ambitions. They follow mentors and positive role models mainstream TV often leaves out. They raise awareness and money for causes they care about. They show college admissions officers that they’re talented beyond words and are more than just an SAT score because they post their passions and hobbies on Instagram. Not surprisingly, 1 in 3 college admission officers admits to checking an applicant’s digital footprint, and teenagers can positively sway those acceptance decisions by sharing their talents and interests across the digital world.
Those doing good
But do girls know these stories? Marian Wright Edelman, an American activist for the rights of children, said, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” It’s unquestionable that girls must see how their peers are using social media for good to understand its positive power.
They must see 11-year-old Marley Dias, who started the #1000BlackGirlBooks drive. When Marley got frustrated because her fifth-grade teacher assigned only books about “white boys and their dogs,” her mom asked her what she was going to do about it. Marley took to social media to launch a successful campaign that prompted booksellers like Barnes & Noble to donate.
They must see 14-year-old Isis Brown, who used YouTube to stand up to online bullies who called her a terrorist. She made a video message to offer support and advice to other kids named “Isis” who may also be bullied. Her message: “Love your name. Cherish your name.”
They must see high school senior Klaudia Jazwinska, who used Twitter to find out which college was the right fit for her. Following a visit, Klaudia connected with students and professors at Lehigh University who were eager to answer her 140-character questions and share their experiences about the college. Her decision: This is the right place for me.
Nine hours a day
These young girls use the power of social media for good – a behavior others need help learning and one that most schools are not teaching. It’s up to parents to show them these undercover examples. In the teen world, Kanye’s Twitter complaints and T-Swift’s selfies steal the spotlight. The light shone on positive examples needs to be brighter.
Parents should know who their daughters see each day on their favorite platforms and apps – the celebrities, brands and friends they’re following. In November 2015, Common Sense Media found that every day teens in the U.S. spend about nine hours using media for enjoyment. That’s potentially more than a girl’s classroom education. It’s not outlandish to suggest that who she sees there is who she’s admiring and, perhaps, emulating.
Do these people align with her core values, passions and personal interests? No? Help her see girls who crush it, from the soccer field to the science lab. Then encourage her to share positive things about herself, her life, her ideas, her dreams. And while selfies can give girls confidence, they need to turn the camera around once in a while and share their passions.
Right now, social media education must start at home because it’s not fully part of school curriculum. New Jersey should be applauded for taking the first step in January 2014 to mandate that all middle schools teach social media classes. But the state remains the only one to require social media education. We have a long way to go.
Social media is not something that deserves only a 60-minute huddle once a year. This is an active relationship that parents must initiate and champion on an ongoing basis. Parents have the chance to sway daughters away from cyberbullying, from devaluing their self-worth and from messaging strangers by investing the necessary time to coach them on the positive plays of social media. It’s a lesson with a lifetime value.
Laura Tierney is social media director at McKinney, an advertising agency with offices in New York and in Durham.