When my younger daughter was in second grade, her class read Flat Stanley, a book about a paper-thin boy who travels around the world via mailed envelopes. Her class made their own Flat Stanleys and mailed him to friends and family, all of whom had instructions to take pictures of Flat Stanley before sending him on. I had friends living in China and Spain at the time, so my daughter’s Flat Stanley became quite the world traveler.
I am reminded of Flat Stanley whenever I see a certain kind of post on social media. Someone, usually a teacher, will take a picture featuring a sign or a note asking for people to re-post and note their location as a way of demonstrating how quickly internet images. Unlike Flat Stanley’s adventures, the “travel” is not exploratory, but precautionary, warning teens and pre-teens about potential dangers of social media. While I share the concern, I question the method.
Sharing on social media is a complicated issue, and it deserves to be dealt with as such. Young people know when they are being spoon-fed simplistic rules, and they often rebel against them. It’s tempting to provide clear, unambiguous directives, but those directives fail to give kids the tools they need to navigate inevitable ambiguities. Much like purity rings or the “Just Say No” campaign against drugs, rules without reasons invite push-back and remove the young person’s own decision-making abilities from the process. If you will excuse a little maritime analogy, we need to help young people develop the critical thinking skills and moral compass to necessary to navigate the choppy waters of social media. Throwing them the heavy anchor of “Just Don’t Post” won’t work.
I’m also worried this heavy-handed approach is teaching young people to be overly concerned with their image and the perceptions of others. We should be helping our children develop their characters so that they are genuinely good people. It’s important their self-worth doesn’t solely—or inappropriately—rely on outside feedback. The media is much more pervasive in the lives of today’s adolescents than in earlier generations. As a result, the importance of public image has become so inflated that it can easily drown a young person’s ability to develop into the best, most true version of themselves. The “see how fast a picture travels via social media” lesson reinforces this concept.
But do young people really understand the intended message? From what I have seen, the desired outcome is for young people to understand that something posted on social media can have negative implications on their reputation and future opportunities—and that those effects can be devastating. It’s questionable, at best, to encourage young people to tailor their image—and, by extension, their personality and character—to the needs of a nebulous future employer. It’s even worse to make kids think their messy childhood mistakes—that almost everyone makes—are wholly irredeemable. We have seen numerous young people die by suicide following shaming or bullying on social media. The message of “everyone can see this, and it will never go away” must have contribute to the feeling of hopelessness that led to those fatal decisions.
Social media is a relatively new landscape, one which we adults are still learning to navigate. While I understand the impulse to give hard and fast rules internet rules to young in the hopes of keeping them safe, doing so robs them of the opportunity to learn to participate responsibly. It also makes it harder for us to engage with them in a manner that truly nurtures and values their developing character and critical thinking skills. Helping young people interact with social media in a manner that enriches their lives, their intellect, and their relationships requires an ongoing conversation—not a meme.