As the mother of three boys, I appreciate the irony in suggesting that my kids could possibly benefit from having their eyes permanently locked onto screens and their thumbs flashing furiously across tiny keyboards. “Screens off” is a shout heard often in our house (shouted by me, of course). But social media aren’t all bad.
In fact, there are a myriad of benefits to be gained from engaging in social media, and they far outweigh the risks of stranger danger, online bullying, stalking, plagiarism and familiarity with spelling questionable “words” like “U” and “R.”
First, though, you should know that I’m a “techtopian,” and believe that the good of being social online far outweighs the bad. Those bad things happen, of course, just like they have always happened offline; engaging in social media doesn’t create pedophiles or bullies but rather enables people who are already inclined in those directions.
This means our job as parents remains the same as it has always been. We need to teach our children to make good decisions, to be kind in words and deeds, to think before speaking in any medium and to be careful with what they do with their photos. But we can’t be good guides for social media unless we understand how these platforms work and why.
Social media are digital communication vehicles that are easy to use (we’ll get to that in a minute), ubiquitous (this you know from playing a game of Whack-A-Mole with various devices) and inexpensive.
It is the communications part that makes these websites, apps and devices social, unlike, say, a static website that serves as a digital billboard. And here is where we begin to see the benefits for children engaging in social media.
Being a good communicator is a critical skill for success in any job. When you watch young people spread their wings socially across the web, you see a variety of interactions involving listening and responding on blogs, Facebook and Twitter. They are learning to honor what other people say, feel or share. Kids who don’t follow these norms don’t have large social networks. No one listens to the blowhard for very long. If you were hiring for an organization right now, wouldn’t you want people who are empathetic and good listeners?
Schools increasingly emphasize collaborative work styles, and young people naturally collaborate online. They ask their friends questions about homework assignments, share links to articles and write essays together. Again, isn’t this the way we hope professionals will work?
And then there are the ways young people practice democracy online. They vote for their favorite idols, share information about their favorite causes and raise money for these same causes. These are the habits and practices of good citizens and the same ones that help create democracy activists, encourage friends to vote in elections and seek justice.
One of the most empowering and exciting parts of the social web is the opportunity for anyone to create content. Whether writing their own blog, creating a video and posting it on YouTube, or gathering up graphics for a hobby or a cause on Pinterest, young people have a way of expressing themselves intellectually and artistically, without asking permission or being filtered. For the most part, they do this in near anonymity — very few blogs have more than ten readers. But even if the audience is limited, these children are still learning to express their thoughts and feelings in public ways, to accept criticism or praise for it and to witness others sharing it.
Our job as parents is to help our children navigate this world in the same way we help them navigate their social world offline. It’s our job to talk to them about what they’re working on and how they’re engaging with others, and to remind them that kindness is a requirement wherever they are engaging with people. But we can’t do it without participating in this online world.
Kids have the benefits of time and fearlessness to experiment online. We have to create the time and give ourselves permission to experiment online as well. Parents need to be on Facebook or commenting on blogs or Tweeting; they must understand the attraction and power of connecting with others in a virtual realm.
Lastly, we need to model the importance of shutting down our own computers, tablets and smartphones once in a while, and to insist they do the same. While I spend much of the week socially engaged online, I make sure that my screens go dark every Shabbat, which I spend, unplugged, with my family.
Allison Fine is co-author of “The Networked Nonprofit” (Jossey-Bass, 2010) and president of Temple Beth Abraham in Tarrytown, N.Y.