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What lessons from Essena O’Neill’s social media exodus better prepare our kids for a life lived online?
Recently I’ve been exploring independent middle schools in San Francisco. During my search, I came across the Millennium School, a re-imagining of middle school, set to launch in 2016. Serendipitously, they were looking for someone like me too and invited me attend one of their Pop-Up School events, which focused on social media.
Parents and their children were split up to pursue 2 paths of inquiry: while we parents discussed approaches towards giving our kids access to social media, the kids prepared to interview us on the topic. To sharpen the adult dialog, we read about Instagram phenom Essena O’Neill and her decision to quit social media. Could relating her experience better prepare our kids to step confidently onto the social media stage?
That said, most of the parents were ill at ease about the internet and its apparent threats — echoed by 55 percent of respondents to an Onward, Internet campaign survey who said that the one thing they’d improve about the internet was its trustworthiness.
But even though their kids weren’t on social media yet, nearly all of the parents agreed that that would change soon enough. This transition loomed ominously for most, but they acknowledged that suppression wasn’t a viable long term strategy.
Considering that I’ve worked on social web apps for the last decade, broaching this topic forced to consider my own stance on the matter: how should I approach giving my kids access to these technologies?
Personally, I find the topic of how young people conceptualize and relate to social media and the internet deeply interesting.
I also find the bafflement of parents towards their children’s use of these things equally fascinating. (For the record, I count myself among the baffled ones.)
Where once as a teenager I sought (and gained!) unfettered access to the World Wide Web and chat rooms through subterfuge, cleverness, and little white lies (“Ah c’mon mom! I’m only chatting with people I already know from school!”), now the shoe’s on the other foot. I am now — as a parent — playing the unenviable role of the clumsy usher to my kids who are equal parts world class touch device ballerinas and simultaneously naïve to the shock-monsters that lurk behind the SafeSearch closet door.
But it’s not just the risk of premature exposure that makes parenting in the age of social media challenging, it’s how social media changes us, reconfiguring the way we value and perceive ourselves and others. By exploiting our desires for connection, acceptance, and belonging, social media can turn us into strung out, addicted rats if we don’t properly develop and nurture a healthy and resplendent sense of self that doesn’t need the glittering lures of social media to thrive.
That’s why Essena O’Neill’s story is so pertinent. She did exactly what her social media audience asked of her: dress up, look pretty, portray an impeccably perfect life (worthy of The Rich Kids of Instagram). And she was succeeding by all apparent measures of success: tens of thousands of Likes, hundreds of thousands of Followers, lucrative sponsorships. But it was a façade, a highly seductive fabrication specifically to inspire jealousy and envy in her peers.
In revealing the cancer of paid promotion that had invaded her ‘fauxthentic’ lifestyle, she broke the fourth wall of social media.
Her sham, once revealed, gave us insight into the insidious nature of so much of social media (an increasingly familiar story), which was once thought to be pure and raw. But once commerce entered the fray, authenticity became outstripped by post-production, generosity usurped by sponsorship. Everything is selling something, too often without sufficient transparency. That’s what makes Essena’s case remarkable: in revealing the cancer of paid promotion that had invaded her “fauxthentic” lifestyle, she broke the fourth wall of social media, shaking her audience out of the trance she’d held them in. In one final act of defiance and self-reclamation, she destroyed her profiles on Instagram and YouTube.
Do you think her parents are proud?
If you’re a parent, how would you explain this to your kids?
How should parents clue their kids into the subtle machinery that’s constantly working to manipulate their desires and tastes? What does it look like to empower them with technology while protecting them from the insidious exploits of which many of us are all too aware?
Again, it’s no wonder that most respondents to NCTA‘s survey listed “trustworthiness” as the primary thing they’d like to see changed about the internet — by an overwhelming majority (curiously, San Franciscans also found the internet 11-percent more intimidating and 12-percent harder to take a break from than the national average).
This apparent lack of trustworthiness has huge implications in readying middle schoolers for accessing social media and the internet. Notwithstanding, my conclusion isn’t that kids should be kept off social media. Instead, I intend to encourage my kids to develop healthy and honest senses of self, tempered with self-awareness, and empathy for others.
With that grounding, I hope they see social media as just another context for human connection; it’s not special, though it’s important to respect what it is and isn’t good at. The internet, as Onward, Internet’s data shows, can serve as a source of strength and inspiration, as 57% of people find support online, and that we’ve seen recently with the outpouring of solidarity in the wake of disasters, both natural and manmade.
Social media’s proven potential to unite people and generate understanding is the one aspect I’m most optimistic about, and why it’s critical to get kids familiar with social media early on. When social media starts locally, where the participants know each other in real life and share a physical context such as school or extracurriculars, it can supplement real world interactions, rather than replace them. In healthy, inclusive environments where sufficient guidance is provided about how to live well with others, social media can amplify and reinforce positive messages and attitudes. It is possible, even if its not commonplace just yet.
Chris Messina is the Developer Experience Lead at Uber and inventor of the hastag, sign up for his newsletter or follow him on Twitter. This post was originally sponsored by the NCTA. Chris was asked to reflect on the value of the internet in his daily life, and to consider the results of their Onward, Internet survey. Apart from the approval to publish this piece, they did not control its contents.
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