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A plea for educators and parents: Coach teens to win at social media

In the era of Snapchat and Instagram, social media has become one of the most powerful tools for a teenager. But we often only hear one side of its powers.

In the new, unnerving book, American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers, we hear how girls destroy their reputations, slash their self-esteem and even lose their own lives by accepting friend requests from strangers, getting cyberbullied and equating self-worth to Instagram likes. One high school sophomore recently told me she spends hours each day thinking about the Instagram caption that she posts each night. The better the caption, the more likes. Guaranteed.

While these stories are true and some of them frightening, parents and schools must open their eyes and see the other side of the story. Social media can propel girls, too.

Thanks to people like famous record producer DJ Khaled, positivity and encouragement are becoming just as powerful (and newsworthy) on social media as bullying. When one 17-year-old girl from Boston saw that she was voted “ugliest in school” on the platform Ask.fm, she responded to her cyberbullies through a Facebook post, explaining the importance of being confident in your own skin. Fellow peers instantly shared her post and it went viral, inspiring thousands of girls around the nation to value exactly who they are.

The reality is, girls are using platforms like Snapchat, Twitter and Instagram in positive and powerful ways that fuel their reputations and ambitions. They follow mentors and positive role models that mainstream TV often leaves out. They raise awareness and proceeds for causes they care about. They show college admission officers that they’re talented beyond words and are more than just an SAT score, because they post their passions and hobbies on Instagram. Not surprisingly, one in three college admission officers now admit to checking an applicant’s digital footprint, and teenagers can positively sway those acceptance decisions by sharing their talents and interests across the digital world.

You can’t be what you can’t see

But do your daughters know these stories? Marian Wright Edelman, an American activist for the rights of children, said, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” It’s unquestionable that your daughter must see how their fellow peers are using social media for good to understand its positive power.

She must see 11-year-old Marley Dias, who started the #1000BlackGirlBooks drive. When Marley got frustrated because her fifth-grade teacher only assigned books about “white boys and their dogs,” her Mom asked her what she was going to do about it. Marley took to social media to launch a successful campaign that went viral, prompting booksellers like Barnes & Noble to donate to her campaign. (Psst, I was drawing in coloring books at age 11. What about you?)

Your daughter must see 14-year-old Isis Brown, who used YouTube to finally stand up to online bullies who called her a terrorist. She made a video message to offer support and advice to other kids named “Isis” who may also be bullied. Her message: “Love your name. Cherish your name.”

She must see 15-year-old Lexi Hidalgo, the youngest certified yogi in South Florida who uses Instagram to share her yoga poses and encourages others to be healthy. Her impressive handstand videos show her outer strength while her authentic, supportive Instagram captions prove her inner strength.

Your daughter must see powerful role models like DJ Khaled (@djkhaled305) on Snapchat, who communicates to millions of teens each day that the grass is always greener. In the standard Khaled Snapchat story, everything is good or can be made good with a little effort. One young woman attending the University of Alabama recently tweeted, “Hey @djkhaled, are you available for hire as a life coach? Asking because I need more keys and uplifting advice than just Snapchat stories.”

Your daughter must see high school senior Klaudia Jazwinska, who used Twitter to find out which college was the right fit for her. Following a college visit, Klaudia connected with current students and professors at Lehigh University who were eager to answer her 140-charater questions and share their own experiences about the college. Her decision: This is the right place for me.

These young girls use the power of social media for good — a behavior others need help learning, and one that most schools are not teaching. Parents, it’s up to you to show them these undercover yet incredibly powerful social media examples. After all, in the teen world, Kanye’s Twitter complaints and T-Swift’s selfies steal the spotlight. The light shone on positive examples needs to be brighter.

Because we cannot keep teen girls from using social media or apps like Kik and Snapchat, parents should be empowering them to excel there. To be proud of themselves and their friends. To take control of their reputation. Call it modern-day feminism if you want. Call it a game they must win.

Winning the game of social media

It’s a game that over 40 million teens around the U.S. play every year. They play for likes, for causes, for advice, for engagement. When they play for good, I call this winning the game of social media. So, as a parent, how do you coach your daughter to win that game rather than lose it?

The key to success is to share the “Dos” of social media rather than only harping on the “Don’ts.” Consider how one of the greatest coaches in history develops winning teams and players. Mike Krzyzewski doesn’t consistently lead his basketball team to victory by only sharing the plays that they should never, ever run. He teaches them the most powerful plays to win the game. Social media is no different.

  1. Positive input

Start by seeing who she sees each day on her favorite platforms and apps — the celebrities, brands and friends that she’s following. In November 2015, Common Sense Media found that every day teens in the U.S. spend about nine hours using media for enjoyment. That’s potentially more than a girl’s classroom education. It’s not outlandish to suggest that who she sees there is who she’s admiring and, perhaps, emulating.

Do these people align with your daughter’s core values, passions, and personal interests? No? Well, it’s time to get other role models inducted into her social media wall of fame. To win the game of social, she must fill her feeds with positive inputs that fuel her confidence and aspirations to be what she can see. Help her see girls who crush it, from the soccer field to the science lab.

  1. Positive output

Then encourage her to share positive things about herself, her life, her ideas, her dreams. And while selfies can give girls confidence, remind your daughter to turn the camera around once in a while and share their passions. Her world is much bigger than her face.

With 659 followers on Instagram, Kay Bernadas is an excellent example. A recent Appalachian State graduate, Kay shares her passion for baking and photography through Instagram, so I wasn’t surprised to learn that her creative posts helped her land an internship at a national advertising agency. After all, according to a 2014 survey by Jobvite, 92 percent of employers now report using social media to find high-quality candidates.

  1. Positive relationships

Thanks to features like direct messaging on Twitter and Instagram, girls can also use social platforms to build relationships with role models and mentors. I personally use 140-character tweets to land informational interviews that have led to dream internships and jobs. I seek advice from mentors when the going gets tough. I use LinkedIn to learn about other professionals who share my interests. These are plays that we must transfer to the next generation.

The future of social media education

Right now, this education must start at home, because it’s not fully part of our school curriculum. New Jersey should be applauded for taking the first step in January 2014 to mandate all middle schools to teach social media classes. But the state remains the only one out of 50 to require social media education. We have a long way to go.

Social media platforms are where 92 percent of today’s teenagers huddle on a daily basis. And as a parent — someone who may have grown up in the age of passing hallway notes and calling others — you are probably not familiar with these alien platforms, their disappearing content, their anonymity or their privacy settings. The solution: downshift, step on the brake, and have your teenager teach you social media. Put your daughter or son in the driver’s seat to show you how Snapchat, Kik and Yik Yak and work, who they’re following, why they share what they share and what role models fill their feeds. This important conversation begins to build trust: the most critical component between a parent and teen when openly discussing social media.

Social media is not something that deserves only a 60-minute huddle once a year. This is an active relationship that parents and educators must initiate and champion on an ongoing basis. You have the chance to sway teens away from cyberbullying, from devaluing their self-worth and from messaging strangers by investing the necessary time to coach them on the positive plays of social media. Consider the long-term win: it’s a lesson with a lifetime value.

Laura Tierney

Laura Tierney is the Founder and CEO of The Social Institute, empowering students and their role models to navigate social media and technology in positive, high character ways.