Good Digital Parenting
Blog | April 22, 2014

Crisis Management: Helping Teens When Things Go Wrong Online

English teacher, Brooks School

As an educator, I see and hear a wide-ranging spectrum of material in regards to students' use of social media. I see students using these platforms to show their passions and interests; through their videos, pictures and posts students reveal what is important to them, and are celebrated by their friends with open and public responses. I have also found that these platforms can give a voice to the quieter, less assuming student. This has been especially true in my classroom when students use social media or discussion forums to supplement the work we are doing in class. Even the extroverted students can access and reveal a more intimate and complex side of themselves by utilizing this technology. I believe the good far outweighs the bad when it comes to students using social media to communicate with each other, and with adults. And yet, as with anything else in life, abuse and inappropriate behavior is a menacing reality that sometimes creeps into this student-centered world of mass and often unfiltered communication, and adults have the responsibility to understand the new challenges brought on by social media. 

There is no guarding against conflict between students; it happens and will continue to happen. Unfortunately, however, these conflicts are manifesting themselves in ways that few adults see and understand, and they are proving to have potentially dangerous consequences. When students are angry or feel violated they pull the Internet out their pocket, and out the feelings pour. Indeed, confrontations in the lunchroom are happening less and less, and if they do, it is often because of something that has already been posted online. Obviously the nature of conflicts between students varies dramatically, but when they are carried far enough they all result in the same painful reality. The simple fact is that posting something negative about somebody is much easier than passing on a negative remark in person. The construction of the negative remark a student sends out online is also drastically different than when it is communicated in person. The computer screen breeds false confidence and a perceived anonymity, and when negative emotions are running strong, bad decisions are made. Teenagers are physiologically soft-wired to be impulsive and experimental. Immediate access to an audience can feel like almost too much to resist; it is like having a diary that talks back. 

There is also the issue of mistaken tone or intent; I have heard far too many times that a student didn’t mean to hurt somebody’s feelings, and that the remark made online was nothing more than a joke. I have learned that for all advantages of communicating online, one major disadvantage is the fact that tone is not easily translated through a computer screen. Tone is not simply achieved verbally, but is also couched in facial expressions and body language, all of which is stripped away by bits and pixels. 

Finally, social media is almost entirely predicated in reaction. Students respond to anything and everything, and may do it in the thirty seconds it takes them to walk from one classroom to another. Needless to say that judgment and forethought are not at a premium when posts happen with such immediacy. 

Diffusing a Crisis Online 

So what can adults do to help mitigate this hurtful behavior, and how can online crisis be diffused with the least amount of damage? 

Most importantly, adults can strive to become educated on the platforms that students are using. Social media is a constantly evolving industry, but there are some core platforms that can get anybody started. They are free and open to everybody, so get involved. Also, know that the information that students are broadcasting about themselves and others is public, so there is no need for prowling around. This point is liberating because any concern about overstepping boundaries is moot. Social media contact between adults and children is really nothing more than another layer to an existing relationship. Students and teens often dodge parental friend requests, for example, however as parents you should feel empowered to respond saying any information on their profile is inherently public so there should be nothing to hide. It doesn’t have to be invasive or judgmental, it only has to be honest. That involvement may go a long way in helping students make good decisions, and ultimately avoid online crisis. 

The other thing for adults to consider is that in some ways this is the best moment in time to hop on the social media and app band wagon. Let me explain: technology today is almost totally driven by "user-friendliness," meaning that while some parts may feel complicated to navigate, much of the technology students are using (apps in particular) are designed to be intuitive and to require little button-pushing. Once you have developed an intuition with just one app, you will quickly be able to familiarize yourself with many. 

What Happens After the Crisis Occurs 

When we do find ourselves helping a student who is on the wrong end of a social media maelstrom, we must act with sensitivity and care. Keep in mind that this is where these students live, and when they’ve been victimized they may feel violated and ashamed, as well as trying to process if the harsh actions are true or deserved. When I speak with a student who is dealing with an unfortunate online incident, I speak to him or her the same way I would if he or she was dealing with any other type of hurtful incident. The student may feel powerless and exposed; the permanence of the event feels overwhelming. Open and thoughtful dialogue is essential, and although a child may resist it at first, keep trying and be a supportive listener. And frankly, the same approach is invaluable in dealing with the perpetrator, as it can be a poignant moment in accessing their own experience as being the victims some other time or may reveal information about a larger issue at hand. 

 Remember, social media is built on reaction born from another reaction, and one way to diffuse a conflict is to break that cycle. This may involve dissolving an account or blocking certain activity, but those actions are at best temporary. More often than not, online conflict is diffused when one of the involved parties ceases to engage; the aggressor simply moves on to the next thing. Still, on a broader scale is the point that students may need help and guidance in terms of understanding the consequences of their online actions. Mentors, such as those at Cornerstone Reputation, help students navigate the world of social media in an empathetic manner. Where parents and teachers often miss the mark in terms of reaching teens, mentors who are closer in age often succeed. The Cornerstone mentors are highly trained as well as encouraged to use their own experiences as a means to connect with teens about life online. They are in the same world and yet removed just enough through their age, maturity, and wisdom that they can help teens to manage their emotions and impulses

Teens today are navigating a complicated world; however, I dare say our parents said that about us. That’s the nature of progress. We know that social media is here to stay, and generally teens are using it to their great advantage. However, when things do go wrong adults must be equipped to help. We must do our best to understand the challenges our teens are facing; only then can we help when our help is needed most. 

Cover image courtesy of Flickr.