If you can’t ban them, join them.
That’s Julie Smith’s philosophy when it comes to managing a teen’s use of social media apps. Smith, who teaches media literacy and digital citizenship at Webster University in Missouri, addressed parents Oct. 18 at the Baldwinsville Central School District’s “Helping Your Child Thrive: A Health & Wellness Mini-Conference for Parents.” The author and mother of three offered her advice on the latest issues teen face while using apps such as Instagram and Snapchat.
“How can I keep my daughter from seeing bad things online?” Smith recalled one parent asking.
“You can’t,” she said, but you can teach your kids smart social media habits.
“How do I keep my son off Snapchat?” is another query Smith has received.
Smith’s suggestion? Join the app yourself and constantly send selfies to your teen. That way, your child knows you’re aware of their social media activity, and they might be less inclined to use an app where they see their mom’s goofy, filtered face popping up.
“Many people ask me to do my ‘internet safety’ speech. I don’t do an ‘internet safety’ speech,” said Smith, who presented at both Durgee Junior High School and Baker High School preceding the parents’ conference. “Even calling it ‘internet safety’ implies that the internet is dangerous and something we need to fear.”
The Oct. 18 mini-conference, the brainchild of Durgee Library Media Specialist Lindsay Cesari and Baker Librarian Leslie Cartier, allowed parents to learn how to help their kids through the trying teen years. About 200 people registered for the conference, which the librarians hope to bring back next year.
“We’re both parents. We know there’s no manual,” Cesari said. “We think it’s important to give tips on having a child that thrives.”
After Smith’s keynote address, parents attended breakout sessions led by educational, law enforcement and health professionals. The presentations covered a range of mental and physical health topics, from the opiate epidemic, the stigma of suicide and practicing mindfulness to concussions, the HPV vaccine or nutrition for athletes.
“We really tried to keep it local — community educating community,” Cesari said, noting that many of the presenters live or work in Baldwinsville.
Cesari said Smith presented last year at Durgee and was well-received, so she and Cartier reached out to her for the mini-conference.
“She has a really positive message that focuses on strategies and coping,” Cesari said.
“It’s not a ‘thou shalt never’ [approach],” Cartier said.
The average American spends 11 hours using electronic mass media each day, Smith said. As teens increasingly conduct their social lives via apps and the internet, they can endure blows to their self-esteem from seeing their peers’ and celebrities’ retouched, seemingly perfect bodies.
“You are asking for affirmation from strangers based on your appearance,” Smith said of Instagram. “Nobody peaks in seventh grade.”
If a so-called friend omits your middle-schooler’s username from her photo of a party but tags all the other girls who attended, your child could feel snubbed or left out. If a girlfriend forgets to send her boyfriend a selfie on Snapchat, it could shatter their “Snapstreak” — the consecutive number of days two people have exchanged messages.
“This is what keeps middle-schoolers awake at night,” Smith said.
In addition to feelings of social rejection, heavy social media use has been linked to depression as kids “compare and despair,” concluding from their Instagram feed that their friends have it way better or easier than they do. Smith reminds parents and teens that they’re only seeing their peers’ highlight reels — a good hair day, the winning goal, sunny vacations — instead of the blooper footage of everyone’s lives.
“We really only see the tip of other people’s icebergs,” Smith said. “We only see what they allow us to see.”
While there are some perils of the online world, Smith emphasized that social media is not inherently dangerous. Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and other platforms allow far-flung loved ones to share photos, messages or even make calls.
Smith also encourages people of all ages to promote their personal “brand.” If a teen is an aspiring photographer, he might consider blogging about his own photo tips and tricks, or following photographers he admires on Instagram and Twitter. An athlete could post workout tips for her followers or share positive media coverage of her team’s accomplishments.
“I want them to be in charge of what gets told about them because stuff’s going to get told about them no matter what,” Smith said.
Ashley M. Casey is a reporter for The Baldwinsville Messenger and The Eagle Star-Review. She graduated from Le Moyne College in 2012 and previously worked for the Scotsman Press.