Equipping Teens with Conversational  Etiquette in the Social Media Age

With Snapchat, texting, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram etc., we are able to click, like and make quick snappy comments. There is arguably a lot of benefits to social media. It has given us the ability to connect with long lost family members, share ideas with millions of people in the world and most importantly, we are able to voice our thoughts on numerous topics from fashion to politics.  But the question still remains: are we truly conversing, listening, understanding and respecting each other’s feelings and ideas?  With social media we are able to click on a post, share our opinion, post comments, and often times with very little thought to consequences. We are quick to write our opinion and judge others behind a screen using fake user names. I don’t know about you, but lately I have seen a lot of people retracting statements, apologizing for comments made in the spur of the moment and losing one’s job because of careless pictures or statements.

The social media trend is even more alarming with teenagers and pre-teens. With peer pressure on the rise, it is alarming how many teens are posting pictures and pretending to be who they are not. Social media use is here to stay and our teens are at risk of losing out on learning diplomatic ways to address issues. “Facebook tops the list of sites that kids sign up to underage with 52% of 8-16 year olds admitting they had ignored the site’s official age limit. Other sites include WhatsApp (40%), SnapChat (11%) and Ask.fm (8%). At aged ten, over half (59%) of children have used a social network. Kids are opening themselves and others up to potential risks, with 21% posting negative comments  starting from the average age of 11 and a quarter (26%) hijacking another’s account and posting without permission. Furthermore, 43% have messaged strangers starting from an average age of 12,” according tohttp://www.knowthenet.org.uk/.

Most arguments in favor of allowing teens more access to social media are: (1) it increases social confidence, (2) it allows them to share opinions and (3) it also helps make or maintain friends. As a parent of two teenagers, I find these statements very confusing and troubling. Science has proven that teenagers do not process and make decisions in a in a thoughtful rational way, given that their decision making skills are not fully developed. Teens are simply not yet equipped to think through things in the same way as we adults do.  Therefore, allowing them to post information and share pictures and make comments without equipping them with rules and proper training are not wise. We know that teens succumb to peer pressure, we have seen or heard of teens that would naturally not engage in bullying in day to day situations but who are now engaging in cyberbullying to the surprise of parents.

Recently, I was driving with 4 teenagers in my car. Out of the blue they saw a sign advertising medicinal marijuana use. Guess what,  they all at the same time, screamed that I slow down on the highway so they can take the picture of the sign. While I did not slow down, they all managed to take a picture of the sign and they all posted the same picture and spent time boasting of the number of likes they were receiving. After silently listening, “I asked why the picture was so important and why it garnished so many likes”, my daughter rolled her eyes and responded, “Seriously!”  What surprised me was their excitement about a sign promoting medicinal marijuana. I know these teens, (and trust me) they are not into this stuff, but in their social media world this poster gave a message that would boost their popularity on social media. When I got home I privately brought this up with my girls, we discussed our rules about posting on social media. The response I got was, “Lol mom, TMI, please I know what I am posting and I am only following people that I know and it’s private!” That did not stop me from reviewing their accounts.

With more and more texting and social media usage, teens are becoming less and less sensitive about what they are communicating and how they are communicating. There is something to be said about connecting and hearing the excitement, embarrassment or the pain from another person. Following the incident with the 4 teens, I did a little experiment in my teen group for them to understand the implication of some of the social media comments. I uploaded some posts, comments  and pictures from a teen site and printed them. I had the teens sitting away from one another and not facing each other, and then text message/ snapchat each other using the  pictures and message I provided. They thought it was funny and silly and said I should loosen up a little. When they were done, I asked them to turn their chairs around and say the same things to the person facing them.  I also asked them to describe the pictures to their peers. They became uncomfortable and wanted to not say it as it sounded hurtful or weird. During discussions, they all agreed that with texting they were quick to dismiss each other’s feelings as they could not read the body language. They also acknowledged that they could click off or change the topic if they did not really want to deal with the person. However, face to face, it was a completely different experience. It was uncomfortable at first since they were more deeply connecting with the other person’s emotions.  They stated that with face to face conversation, because they could see the person’s response, they were careful on choices of words they used. They were also conscious about how the person will react.

It is true that social media is allowing teens to share and open up more, especially introverted teens and teens struggling socially to connect with others, but are we truly equipping them with  conversational tools? I am using social media as a platform to teach my students conversational skills, but I am also helping them recognize that face-to-face communication is simply the best communication tool. Last year, in our teen group we spent four weeks creating social media etiquette rules of conversations. Surprisingly, our peer volunteers also benefited from some of the rules we created. Here are 10 common sense rules we came up with:

I will not text or post it if I know I cannot support it with facts.
I will not text it or post it if I know it might create conflict or embarrass me later
I will think about how I would feel if someone said that to my face.
I will think before I respond to your post, what I might say now, might not be that cool later.
If I cannot say it to the person’s face, I am not posting it.
I will not join in chats or post that aid and abet postings that will cause harm to others.
I will not post or share embarrassing pictures of me or friends.
I will not join gossip and spread rumors as I can’t take it back.
I will not post private videos or snapchat them, if I know your parents will not approve.
If I am feeling bullied, I will share with an adult or friends I trust.

To assist teens with social media etiquette start the conversation with acknowledging the importance of social media in their life. Talk about the importance of them connecting with their friends and sharing important life moments both on social media and also face-to-face. Follow up by pointing out that social media is just as another form of communication. Help them to recognize that having emotionally reactive comments on social media is similar to when they do it at home, except it is more dangerous, as everyone can see it.  Emphasize that unlike home where it is hidden behind closed doors, once the send button is clicked, they cannot take it back. Most importantly remember that if science is correct, even a smart teenager will occasionally make irrational decisions. Therefore parents, counselors and educators must consistently help them by making the boundaries and rules clear. We must let teenagers  know that while we do trust them, we are in charge and we will occasionally spot check their accounts to be certain they are following social media rules established both at home and school.

For information on clinical trials: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/trials/index.shtml

staff_54_2223410517Uduak (Udie) Osom holds a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in Speech and Language Pathology from San Jose State University. Udie has served students of all ability levels from preschool through grade 12, for over 20 years. She is very passionate about neuro-developmental disabilities and social-cognitive disabilities. She is the owner/director of Innovative Therapy Services, a pediatric speech, language and social skills clinic in Santa Clara, CA. She can be reached at ussom@pediatricspeech.com

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