Last week Ricky Lewis of Teen Lifeline invited me to join him to give a talk at a local school district. The audience was made up of educators, counselors, law enforcement, nurses and others who were directly or indirectly involved in the lives of kids and teens. Our talk was supposed to focus on safety tips related to the internet. However, we decided to also historicize and contextualize the ways young people are using social media. We wanted to help educators understand the motivations behind young people’s practices and dismantle the moral panic discourses. We wanted educators to know that social media are not inherently bad or dangerous, but rather there are a lot of benefits to using digital media as part of identity exploration, learning, and connecting with peers and adults. It was clear by the reactions and comments that this approach was not what they had expected or were used to hearing from “experts”.
Because I’m surrounded by amazing scholars at conferences and am familiar with the research that demonstrates the benefits (alongside the risks) of social media, I sometimes forget there are still adults who are downright afraid of the ways digital media technologies are being used by young people. There are still people who want to resist the technologies and platforms and who genuinely believe that’s the best way to keep young people safe. Our talk attempted to demystify the myths circulating around digital media risks and highlight the benefits. I took a digital media literacies approach in order to demonstrate that tools, skills, knowledges, and critical thinking was a better approach to helping teens assess, communicate, and manage risks.
The talk seemed to be well received. I was very appreciative of the people who came up to me afterwards to tell me they had learned a lot. The most frequent comment I heard was that the talk “gave them a lot to think about” and that they needed a “paradigm shift” or they needed to “change their perspective.” This is precisely what I hope my research facilitates. Certainly there’s no one surefire way to approach digital media, incorporate it into classrooms and schools, or any guarantees that you’ll make the right decisions. I don’t have all the answers. But I hope that my research and approach can help others make more balanced and nuanced choices and help them navigate the risks as well as the benefits of digital media technologies. My favorite comments were from people who admitted they were afraid of the changes and the technology, but now they are rethinking their own approaches.
Don’t get me wrong, I love getting published and going to conferences and discussing research with other scholars – it’s a very rewarding aspect of my job. However, at the end of the day, what really motivates me to do what I do and research what I research is the hope and anticipation that it will positively affect the lives of those I’m researching (i.e. youth, parents, educators, schools). As such, I’m very grateful that Ricky provided me with an opportunity to speak in an non-academic setting to adults and institutions who have the ability to make on the ground changes in the lives of young people. His approach of working day-to-day with teens (and as a parent), alongside my approach from a more academic research context, were very complimentary and worked well together. I hope people took away new contexts, understandings, tools, and knowledge they can apply in their schools and homes.
Here’s a link to our slides if you are interested.