When you think of the word 'social', what comes to mind? Is it a happy, positive image, or an unhappy, negative one?
Technically speaking, the adjective 'social' is defined by dictionary.com as "pertaining to, devoted to, or characterized by friendly companionship or relations: a social club" or "seeking or enjoying the companionship of others; friendly; sociable; gregarious".
With regards to computers, dictionary.com gives this definition: "noting or pertaining to online technologies, activities, etc., that promote companionship or communication with friends and other personal contacts: social Web sites such as Facebook; the use of social software to share expertise".
One of the benefits of social media is the sharing of ideas. Both on Twitter and Facebook, a lot can be said in a 140 characters or less, or in a simply passing on of a picture or link, to promote thought, trigger discussion, and instigate positive social change.
At the same time, the same 140 characters on Twitter and swapping of posts, links and pictures on Facebook can erupt like a volcano when people take an issue so personally they lose site of the original cause and begin to personally attack anyone who they feel is against them, or their issue.
I ended up in the cross fires of just such a situation recently on Twitter. I was personally attacked by some Tweeters for offfering medical facts about a controversial public campaign concerning an important child health issue. Instead of recognizing that all of us had the best interests of children at heart but were approaching the issue from different perspectives, these people opted to attack me personally and accuse me of not caring for kids. Which, as you know, is as far from the truth as a day is long.
I worried not so much for myself but my kids, and their kids. I have teenagers on Twitter. Did these folks ever stop to consider how difficult it would be for my teens to see me attacked this way in a public forum? I wondered if they had kids old enough to be online. If so, would they become social media abusers, too?
It turns out, according to research and experts, the answer to the latter is... yes.
"The manner in which a parent uses media reflects and resonates the way their child will subsequently model their media use", Child Psychiatrist Mike Brody, nationally recognized for his expertise on children and media and Chair of the Television and Media Committee of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, told me by email. "These parents are not very good role models."
In fact, 86 percent of teens rely on their parents for how to behave on the internet and other digital devices such as cell phones, according to a recent Pew Internet report.
Like a playground that has recently survived a storm, we have some online social media cleaning up to do. Here's what I propose:
1. Look in the mirror. Are you a good digital citizen... a good role model for your kids? If so, great... keep it up. If not, change. You are your child's best role model. This isn't something that can be turfed to ther kids or adults.
2. If you encounter an online abuser, virtually walk away. Don't engage -- it won't lead anywhere good. In addition, take the following steps:
A. On Facebook: unfriend the person and consider reporting if they are true bullies. You can find the Facebook safety center here.
B. If on Twitter, block the person and consider reporting as spam. To report an abusive user on Twitter, click here.
C. Youtube: To report abuse on YouTube, the information can be found here.
3. Remind yourself that the situation isn't your fault. These people attack because of their poor communication skills and poor interpersonal skills.
4. If your teens are on social media sites, discuss what happend with them. Our kids not only mirror our behaviors but our crisis management tools.
Is it really too much to ask people to treat others online as they'd want to be treated themselves? If so, perhaps they shouldn't be on these sites... or perhaps we all need to step up more and finally take a stand against them. For my teenagers' sakes, I'm planning on doing the latter.
Follow Gwenn Schurgin O'Keeffe, MD on Twitter: www.twitter.com/drgwenn