Social media have become part of the fabric of life for most of our high school and college students. But for many parents, discussing social media with our students is not something we really want to do. After all, there are so many options — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, Tik Tok, LinkedIn, Periscope, and something new seemingly every week. How do we keep up? Where do we start? What do we say?
Why do we even need to have the conversation?
There are lots of reasons to talk to your student about his use of social media, and many parents have already had some of these important conversations when their students were younger. We talk about the amount of time spent, we talk about being careful about what gets posted, we talk about cyberbullying, and we talk about separating fact from fiction. At least we should. But it isn’t always easy, and it isn’t always comfortable. In fact, it seems to get less comfortable as our students get older.
Two important topics to discuss — at least for a start — are the amount of time spent on social media and the importance of carefully considering what your student posts.
Social media — part of modern life
If it seems to you that your student is constantly on his phone, you’re probably right.
According to a study by Experian, 98% of college students use social media. And according to a recent Pew study, during the last eight years social media use by 18-29 years olds has increased 1000%.
A UCLA survey found that 27.2% of students use social media 6 or more hours per week, and, even more alarming, a study by Baylor University found that women average 10 hours per day and men average 8 hours per day on cell phones. 60% of students admit that they may possibly be addicted to their phones.
Teens report that Snapchat is currently their favorite site with Instagram coming in at #2.
Is all of this bad? Not necessarily, although that’s really a matter of personal opinion. But it’s important that parents discuss the reality with their students so that students can be more aware of how they are using media — and of potential problems.
Use of social media has the potential to push students toward more competitive comparisons with their friends. Students most often post about the wonderful things happening in their lives and their best view of themselves — everything from their food, their look, their activities, their friends. As they view online posts, students compare the activities they might be missing, how many likes or shares or friends others have, how happy others always seem to be. The grass may always seem to be greener for everyone else. Is there a relationship between social media use and the rising level of stress and anxiety among college students? Perhaps.
What to talk about?
Talk to your student about fact vs. fiction, and about selective posting. Ask whether it seems realistic that everyone else is always that happy and popular. Ask what others might think if they look at your student’s posts. Ask your student to think about how much time he spends online, where he is spending that time, and whether it feels healthy to him. Your student will probably not make a major change in his behavior right away, but he at least might be more self-aware and have a broader perspective.
Social media and college admission
One good reason to talk to your high school student about his use of social media sites is that it matters to college admission offices. A recent decision by Harvard to recind several student acceptances based on social media posts is proof that colleges pay attention.
In a summer 2016 Media and College Admissions Survey conducted by The Social U — a company the helps students and families navigate their online presence — college admission officers were asked if they use social media in the admission process. Here are some of the findings of that survey:
79% of respondents said that quality of character is important in admission decisions
50% said that someone in the admission office will search applicants online
Why do admission offices look at online presence?
57% of admission officers said that when they check online they have found something that has caused them concern.
What causes admission offices to check?
63% said they search when something or someone alerts them to check about a student
41% said they search when a student has a troublesome disciplinary record
25% said they search when a student has applied for a scholarship, special program, or especially competitive program
24% said they check when an applicant lists questionable accomplishments
16% said they search when they want more information to advocate for an applicant
15% said they check when a guidance counselor recommends that they look
13% said they check would-be athletes (recruiters and coaches also check)
What kinds of things are causes for concern for admission offices?
73% would be concerned about violent symbols or expression
69% would be concerned about any form of prejudice
54% would be concerned about evidence of partying, drugs, or alcohol
40% would be concerned about negative comments about school
33% would be concerned about nudity or partial nudity
24% would be concerned about profanity
Most admission offices said they do not review every applicant, but students would have no way of knowing whether or not they have been reviewed.
And if you have a student already in college, the search continues. A study by CareerBuilder.com found that 45% of employers screen job candidates’ online presence. And a Microsoft study put that percent at 79% of recruiters.
What to talk about?
Make sure your student understands that admissions offices and employers are all looking online to know more about applicants. And make sure your student knows that, even with privacy settings, there are often ways of seeing anything posted online. Almost nothing is truly private.
Cleaning up an online profile earlier rather than later is important. Your student might begin by looking at his online presence — on all sites — with the eye of a recruiter. He should think, too, about photos on others’ sites where he might be tagged. He can try googling himself to see what pops up.
And beyond cleaning up his profile, talk to your student about how he might use his online presence in a positive way. It’s great that he’s cleaned things up and has nothing negative, but how can he highlight positive features? He can think about what he posts, what activities he shows, what he likes and shares. It’s important that he be honest and post a true picture of himself, but he can make it his best self.
And so it will change
Of course, just as we begin to understand one form of social media, it changes and something new replaces it. It’s hard to keep up. But once your student understands the transparency and importance of his online presence, he’ll be able to adapt to whatever the next, new form is.
And then maybe he’ll teach you about it.