Cyber Savvy Mom: Study shows social media has positive impact on students' lives

Joan Goodchild
A recent survey both the Social Institute shows a disconnect between how parents and teens view social media.

While many of us happily log on to Facebook and Instagram and share parts of our lives daily, many parents are also concerned about their kids and their social media use. For several years now we have navigated many confusing and alarming messages, including: social media is dangerous, and kids can be victims of predators, social media is bad for self-image and self-esteem, social media use can ruin a child’s reputation and harm their chances of college acceptance or employment.

But some encouraging new research finds its time to stop fretting so much about these things and relax. There is a disconnect between how parents view social media and how tweens and teens view it – and, it turns out, it is not nearly the pressure cooker that we fear it is.

Laura Tierney, founder and CEO of The Social Institute, an organization that seeks to empower students and their role models to navigate social media and technology in healthy, high character ways, recently surveyed more than 5,000 students at TSI’s partner schools and sent many of the same questions to their parents. The data finds a very different take on social media and its place in daily life.

CyberSavvy Mom spoke to Tierney for details on the survey, and what we parents can learn from it.

You note that there is a great disconnect in how students and parents talk about technology and social media. What have you found and what’s behind this disconnect?

Laura Tierney: In my work helping families around the country navigate social media, I have the unique advantage of being “in the trenches” with both students and parents - sharing new insights, learning about their experiences, addressing common challenges, and asking probing questions. Actively listening powers so much of what we do at The Social Institute and it’s been eye-opening to hear from the two different groups. 

Students and parents don’t see social media in the same light. For students, it’s just a part of life. It’s how they socialize with their friends and learn about the world. For parents, it’s often viewed as this separate mysterious entity full of perilous dangers and warning signs.

We recently surveyed over 6,000 students from our partner schools and we asked students to tell us what they wish adults knew about social media. By far the most common response was something along the lines of “it’s not all bad.”

A large number of students wish adults knew "it's not all bad" when it comes to social media.

We also surveyed parents and asked them many of the same questions we asked students. We asked both groups the question of how often students talk to parents about their online experience. We found that students were over four times more likely to say that they “almost never” talk about their experiences on social media compared to what their parents reported. The bottom line, parents think they talk frequently with their kids about what they’re experiencing on social media, but students say otherwise.

As someone who writes about digital parenting myself, I think social media often gets a bad rap as being a wholly negative influence for kids. You say that’s not really true. How is it a positive thing? 

Laura Tierney: Social media and technology are tools that can be used to do great things. High schoolers and middle schoolers are using their devices to strengthen their reputation, encourage and inspire others, seize collegiate and career opportunities, start movements, support causes, and send  supportive messages to someone they see being bullied. Their devices are their voices. For them, there is no difference between being social and using social media.

It’s easy to fall into the habit of scaring students about the pitfalls of social media, but I believe there’s a better way. Just as a coach teaches players what to do on a field or court, The Social Institute coaches the skills needed to successfully navigate this new world by modeling positive behavior and spotlighting positive role models. We encourage parents and educators to do the same. Let’s empower and equip, rather than scare and restrict. 

You mentioned that many parents think social media creates pressure to be perfect, but that is not what you have found in your research. What have you discovered there?

Laura Tierney: That’s right. Contrary to what many parents believe, the majority of students we polled say they don’t feel pressure to create the perfect life online. In fact, when we asked this question of middle schoolers (an age-group known for being self-conscious), only 10% said they felt pressure to project a perfect image on social media. It’s a big reason why “outtakes” often appear alongside the perfectly posed shots -- students want to show off their fun side. They also enjoy having Finstas (“Friends-only” Instagram accounts) and back-up TikTok accounts where they can be lighthearted, share their outtakes, and project a more authentic version of who they are. 

Do some students feel those pressures? Of course, and our mission includes game-planning to help students handle those pressures. But for the most part, the majority of students don’t feel pressures that many adults just assume are standard across the board.

You have also heard that parents think their kids will jeopardize their chances of getting into college because of content in their social media footprint. Another misconception as you point out. Can you explain? 

Laura Tierney: This is always a big a-ha moment for parents -- and typically a big relief. 

In a 2019 Kaplan survey, a majority of college admissions officers said it’s fair game to check applicants' social media, but most reported that they are more likely to find something that bolsters a candidate's profile (38 percent) rather than something negative (32 percent).

High school students can use social media to showcase their talents and set themselves apart. We encourage high schoolers to create LinkedIn profiles, since LinkedIn results are nearly guaranteed to show up on page one when someone Googles your name. Search Engine Optimization isn’t exactly top of mind for most when preparing students to put their best foot forward, but maybe it should be. Again, it’s about teaching students to use every tool at their disposal and that’s why we coach students to create winning, forward-thinking bios.

In a recent partner school survey, we asked 94 rising high school seniors if they had a LinkedIn profile and only eight of them said yes. So, we see a huge opportunity to flip the switch on the notion that social media can ruin, rather than enhance, reputations.

Common Sense media found that students spend 7.5 hours per day consuming social media.

I think so many parents struggle now because they have watched their children turn their social lives to online forums and they think that is a bad thing. Do you have any words to alleviate that fear?

Laura Tierney: We all know that socialization is vital for the healthy development of tweens and teens, and social media is how students today socialize. While past generations would go to the movies or mall, today’s students connect with each other on social media. As I mentioned earlier, for them being social and using social media are one and the same. I think once we reframe it in that way, parents see that social media can be a productive and healthy outlet, as long as it’s balanced with in-person socialization as well. That last part is so crucial. We aren’t advocating for students to go spend their lives on social media, we’re helping families find positive solutions for striking a healthy balance.

As you note in your recent column, social media is here to stay. So what are your top best practices for families for realistically navigating it now in a healthy way?

Laura Tierney: My best advice is to huddle, not helicopter. A recent study in the Journal of Adolescence found that teens who believed their parents were snooping on them shared less information than teens who felt their parents were respecting their space and boundaries. 

It’s still important to provide supervision, of course, but don’t be sneaky about it. Let them know exactly what the rules are and how you will be monitoring so it doesn’t feel like a secret invasion of their privacy. 

Next, keep the lines of communication open by talking about how your child is using social media and technology. Just like you would ask them about their school day, ask what’s been happening on social media. Ask who they’re texting with, who’s in their Best Friend list on Snapchat, who they’re talking to when gaming. Ask to “friend” and follow them on social media.  Even before COVID, a study by Common Sense media found that students spend 7.5 hours per day consuming media. Factor in 8 hours of sleep and that’s essentially half of their waking hours. 

Finally, create a family tech contract that all family members adhere to -- including parents! This way, you help each other live up to high standards. Our Family Social Standards Agreement™ is a great template that families can use. 

Social media can enrich our lives if we use it right. We can inspire tweens and teens to make good choices online and in real life by keeping the lines of communication open and holding each other to high standards. 

Do you have a question or a story suggestion for Cyber Savvy Mom? Contact me at joangoodchild@cybersavvymedia.com.