Over the last two weeks I’ve been talking about a pretty fabulous report from the Harvard Graduate School of Education about the potential ethical issues many teenagers face when interacting online and in social media – and the benefits and pitfalls associated with the issues.  This report is one of the best academic reviews of adolescents online that I have read – so many of the reviews have an agenda of either pro-media-use or anti-media-use and that dramatically influences their approach and tone.  The Harvard report instead starts from the position that social media, as most issues, has positives and negatives and an attempt to reduce the complicated interactions of factors reduces the usefulness of a conversation rather than enhancing it.  It is notable to me that this report is still one of the best out there even two years after it was written – a lifetime in social media years.

To review what I’ve written so far, here are the other posts on the topic:

In each of these posts I’ve reviewed what the Harvard report said, and then added information about how this applies to the family setting – how parents can support their teenagers in knowing how to make the ethically sound decision – as well as talked about how the ethics are changing as a new understanding of these paradigms comes into force.  Ultimately what it comes down to is this:

Talk with your teenagers.

It isn’t a complicated approach by itself, but I’ve learned that different parents put that dictum into practice in very different ways.  All parents who I have talked with have wanted to be able to talk openly about ethical issues online and off, but only some of them have been able to form and hold that kind of a relationship with teenagers.  I wrote a post some time ago that outlined ten steps to having an open relationship with your teenagers, and I am in the process of turning that list into a book.  Here is the list in short:

  1. Know yourself.
  2. It’s not about you.
  3. Stop talking!
  4. Start listening!
  5. You only get one question.
  6. Do something else while you talk.
  7. Pleasure and pain – acknowledge both!
  8. Be cool like a cucumber, even when you’re under pressure.
  9. Encourage your kids to bring it on!  Be able to stay present to any conversation.
  10. Never surrender to silence.

You can read a short description of each of these steps as they apply to conversations about sex on my original post.  But the point about this approach is that it can really be applied to any sensitive issue – including social media and ethics and even the ethics of social media!  For example, when talking about sex, step number 7 is meant quite literally that you need to acknowledge that sex has positives and negatives and be able to talk openly about both of them or your teenagers will be dismissive of your input.  In regards to social media, if you are unable to acknowledge and accept the real benefits that social media brings to your teenager – either the ones I’ve mentioned in this series or ones your teenager references completely on their own – then when you talk about the potential negatives your teenager will be dismissive because they will quite rightly suspect you don’t have a well-rounded understanding of the issue.

Incidentally, there have been some interesting articles printed recently about how teenagers are using the Internet.  One University of Maryland study recently found that teenagers use terminology typically associated with alcohol and drug addition when talking about how they feel going without Internet access.  However, the participants routinely lacked the physical or psychological symptoms typically associated with withdrawal from an addictive substance.  An article from gigaom.com pokes holes in the study, pointing it out as something more attention-drawing and sensationalistic rather than useful that expands our understanding.  The New York Times recently wrote an article about an experience of several eighth graders who turned off the Internet and their cell phones for a time.  The results?  They were more focused on what was in front of them, which in general they liked.  Now they feel more empowered to decide when to turn media off.  None of this surprised me in any way.  In fact, I wrote that bit about the NYTimes article before I read the article – to see if I could accurately predict what the teenagers felt.  I was also, of course, predicting the spin that the Times article would put on the experience.  I suspect that if they had asked about whether the students picked back up where they had left off when the experiment ended, the students would have said yes, of course.  But that wasn’t included in the article.