Posted on 28-02-2012
Filed Under (social media) by gashed

Firstly, this is my fist attempt at blogging in a few years.  Buoyed on by an enjoyable CESI 2012 conference, I’ve decided to have another go.  This post is this afternoon’s reflections on much of what I heard in presentations from Steve Wheeler, Fred Boss and particularly by Catherine Cronin on Digital identity, privacy & authenticity.  I have yet to look into the literature on this topic but hope to do so soon.

These thoughts relate to how parents and educators can help second level students to learn about the rights, responsibilities, risks and rewards of engaging with social media, particularly the incredible popular facebook.  In my experience there is an understandable worry amongst parents on how best to guide teenagers in this aspect of their lives.  A lack of knowledge and experience means parents don’t have the confidence or vocabulary to discuss social media with their children, and struggle to deal with adverse situations when they arise.  Even those that have an understanding, but lack experience may struggle with the nuances of expression on social media.  Therefore increasingly schools are being asked by parents to become involved in dealing with teenagers and social networking and in dealing with specific situations that arise.  Schools are also involved because it seems that parents seem often not have the respect of the children when dealing with this area, where a disagreement around social media use can quickly escalate into a larger conflict.  Ironically, many of these disputes relate to private interactions between young people that parents and teachers never had any agency prior to the internet, however it seems that when there is social networking involved often it is felt that adult intervention is required.

The response of parents is often to revert to the banning of access to social media; deciding that in the absence of their capacity to regulate and ensure that it is to be used in a safe and constructive manner, that these sites should not be used at all.  Schools also seem to shy away from allowing access to social networking, e.g. blocking facebook.  Given the ease of access to these sites from a variety of devices this banning of access will not be effective.  Furthermore, parents and teachers should appreciate that the use of social media will be an even more important aspect of children’s lives to come, as it’s essential they develop their personal, and ultimately professional, learning networks.  However if parents are to enable children to harness these tools safely and successfully, it is important that they, and teachers, reflect on the nature of social networking, be clear on its positive and negative sides and develop a clear understanding on how these tools should be used.

In order to attain an appreciation of social networking my advice to all parents would be to open a facebook and twitter account.  If for no other reason than to understand the dynamics of how the pages operate and develop an understanding of the culture of the various social media options.  These social media tools of expression are far from neutral; their design and functionality can promote and strongly influence  how teenagers use these sites.

Facebook, the most used social networking site by Irish teens, is a good example how functionality can facilitate certain behaviours.  In Facebook, with a click of the mouse, it is possible to be ‘excluding’, by not friending or defriending someone – therefore hiding your profile .  This means it is very easy to form ‘cliques’, something that is feature of teenage life, but may be very hurtful.  This is not as possible in Twitter for example.  Also the actually methods of expression on Facebook are quite formulaic, all profiles look the same due to this lack of capacity for creative expression.  The creation and maintenance of an account follows a proscribed pattern.  This in turn leads to much mimicry and tribal like behaviour, where all post the same type of pictures etc and even post using the same language.  It is difficult for a uninformed child in this environment, to understand that the nature of their online profile may be as a result of the Facebook culture and not authentic representation of themselves.  In fact the capacity for authentic behaviour by teenagers in this environment is probably limited, particularly in front of people who down really know that well; it’s safer to go with the crowd.  Parents need to understand this in advising teenagers and analysing their profiles.

The nature of a child’s expression on Facebook may also be related to the fact that prior to being friended they basically represent themselves by a single profile picture.  Essentially this not a means of self-expression, but a marketing exercise in order to become rich in the currency of friends.  In marketing themselves, their profile pictures, consistent with images used in much marketing, may be chosen to emphaisis the qualities that they feel a prospective friend would look for; in many cases they become over-sexualised or more adult in nature.  Parents should appreciate that this picture is not an expression of who the child wants to be or is, but who they feel others would ‘friend’.  In fact it is often difficult for the child to define any other persona given such such a reductionist way as one picture.

Parents should also appreciate that the child is not expressing themselves in social media to the wider world, but, as they perceive it, to their peers or friends.  Parents should not rush to extrapolate from a child’s profile to what the full rounded picture of that child is.  Indeed if we reflect on our own lives it is understandable that we show different elements of our personalities with different social audiences.  However, parents need to educate their children that there is a difference to developing a persona through interactions in the physical world to that in the virtual world.  There is a persistence about what happens in the virtual world compared to that in the physical world; hard drives have longer memories than the average human.  In Facebook again, there is a difficultly in deleting old pictures and messages, and of course anyone who has seen these photos has potentially a copy.  In aggregating social media sites such as Facebook there seems to be a conflict between archived content and expressing your current feelings.  All historical activities on the site can be easily accessed, especially with Facebook’s new Timeline feature, and be reused or used out of context.  Parents should help teenagers to understand that activities on social media sites have a permancy, although it is often difficult to get young people to project consequences into the future.  Incongruencies between a child’s persistent social media persona and their authentic self will lead to difficulties in the future.  The museum of me site is an excellent way for a child to reflect on the permanency of their activities and the message that transmits.  As part of this they should also understand that their facebook friends are not really friends in the traditional sense of the word.  They are simply connections, but facebook’s loaded use of the term friend is misleading.  They are not sharing their activities with actual friends.  In contrast to Facebook, Twitter connections, i.e. followers, are earned rather than amassed; this is a different hierarchical relationship that confers additional responsibilities.

Teenagers should also should understand that they have a responsibility to not to abuse the privacy of other people.  Using others material in a negligent fashion should not be accepted.  It is however easily done as it often viewed by teenagers as a victimless crime; this myth should be exposed.

When difficulties and conflicts arise between children on social networks it can be very difficult for parents to resolve.  Conflicts tend to be protracted, beginning in a trival way but persisting and gathering momentum encouraged by the surrounding ring of virtual friends.  In fact it is often difficult for the participants to row back from the disagreement as the ‘public’ nature of the dispute allows people to take sides and in the glare of peer’s view it is difficult to back down.  It also is encouraged by others as it gives them something to communicate about; the  manufacturing of drama and events in order to fill a social media life should not be underestimated.  It is hard for a parent to understand these conflicts; the initial complaint is often long since lost and the whole situation lacks the geography of a traditional disagreement.  It is also difficult to investigate as the participants as their loyalty to the tribe and tool is often stronger that their desire for resolution.  Disputes of this nature often amount to a feud rather than a disagreement, and a should be dealt with as such; emphasising the trivial nature of the beginnings and focusing on what is best for the future.

Ultimately parental/teacher guidance for teenagers in the virtual space is made easier by knowledge of the tools that they are using.  Banning access is not the answer, it is impossible to enforce and ultimately there are lessons about social networking the students will have to know.  For me it is important that teenagers understand the the tools are not neutral and that while is is difficult to be individual it is important (borrowing Catherine Cronin’s phrase) they honour themselves.  They should strive to remain authentic to who they are.  They should understand the there is not real privacy, even among ‘friends’, and that they have a responsibility to respect the privacy of other users.  Digitial identity is constructed in a different way to personal physical identity.  There is a persistence in activities in the virtual space that can make redefining your identity difficult.   It is important early on that teenagers are aware of this.

Social networking, and the capacity to communicate with many regardless of geography, is extremely powerful and can add great value to all lives.  Parents and teachers have a role in ensuring that teenagers utilise social media in a safe and productive manner.

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