Social media: parent salvation and the blues

On a Monday night, a 200 strong crowd enthusiastically seated themselves at a school in the New South Wales City of Bathurst. The panel of social researcher, Hugh Mackay, comedian Tim Ferguson, children’s author Mini Goss and poet Stephen Herrick were the key attractions.

The crowd physically seating themselves in the room, teens to the left, parents and teachers to the right. All were in readiness to hear Mackay’s research rich keynote, Ferguson’s famous comedic wit, Goss’s imaginative humour and Herrick’s poetic musings.

The conversation hung on the theme of ‘The Future of Language in the Digital World’. It was the catalyst for a thought provoking, robust session of question and answer. Hugh Mackay’s keynote was the pivot point for many themes including language conventions, social media, trolls and bullies. No topic was safe from Ferguson’s wit.

The key message of Hugh Mackay’s address was just how critical face-to-face communication is in our world. And it is!

Nothing replaces the warmth and connection of same time, same place, human interaction. However, his address did little to drive an informed debate around the pros and cons of social media in our community.

Social media is here to stay and it does not mean that it cannot have a positive role in meaningfully connecting people.

A negatively skewed social media conversation does little to further an open-minded debate between two critical parties, teens and parents. Teens are savvy social media users providing parents with a resource to assist them in understanding the cultures and actions of youth online.

Teens also make mistakes. Mistakes which are magnified by the speed, reach and highly public nature of the medium. They need the moral guidance of their parents. However, this should not include an attitude of ‘nothing good can come of social media’.

So what does this look like?

Social media symbiosis. That is parents working hard to understand how social media works, learning about the spaces their teens inhabit online, exploring their motives for using social media and helping to set safe flexible boundaries.

It is teens mentoring their parents in the nuances of social media and parents mentoring their teens in life.

All of this should be built on Hugh MacKay’s key message of face-to-face communication. For a parent this requires accepting a new level of generational equality where teens are the key knowledge source. Without acknowledging this equality a parent’s fear of social media will inhibit their understanding and attitudinal change.

As the forum polarised around the negative use of social media by teens an insightful question was asked of the panel. What would an ideal positive role model look and sound like online? The response, silence! Broken only by another Ferguson gag.

Yes, it is critical to address the dark side of social media, but it should not be the start and finish of the conversation. It needs parents to reach across the digital divide, be open minded and see social media as another medium in the communications mix.

A minimalist approach for parents could look like this:

  1. Consider and question your fear factor, values and beliefs regarding the use of social media.
  2. Do a little of your own research. CyberSafe Kids, Common Sense Media and ACMA are all great places to start.
  3. Consider the boundaries of technology use in the home and how it fits with family face-to-face time, recreational activity and personal time.
  4. Do a ‘digital detox’ where you model not using a digital device.
  5. Take the time to ask teens about their use of social media without judgement.
  6. Show your support and join a social media community. Schools are a great place to start as many of them are using sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Commencing a journey along these lines will enable a parent to be a positive role model and an active digital citizen. Social media is embedded in our lives. It will continue to morph at a dynamic pace,  so active open-minded parents are now critical to rebalancing the conversation.

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