11/07/2012 06:22 pm ET Updated Jan 07, 2013

Twitter Is Changing Kids

Twitter is changing kids. Kids are changing Twitter.

Twitter is changing because the kids are flocking to the service faster than previous years and that the use of Twitter by youth is creating a number of issues for parents, schools and the occasional Olympian who just wants to compete for his country without having to deal with harassment from a kid on Twitter who wants to raise a stink.

An interesting moment during the London Olympic Games was when Olympic diver Tom Daley (18) received the following tweet from fellow countryman Reece Messer (17): "you let your dad down i hope you know that." This tweet was sent directly to the athlete and what Mr. Messer alleges he did not know at the time of posting the tweet, is that the father of Mr. Daley had recently passed after a long fight with cancer.

This post and subsequent tweets sent this young man on a path of media notoriety and online backlash from people around the world. Mr. Messer was investigated by police in the UK and his account has been suspended permanently by Twitter. I highly doubt that these events, especially warnings from police, have stopped Reece Messer from being an online bully, but this led to me addressing a concern in my work with a focus on the trends of youth who are migrating to Twitter from other social media platforms. Students who I have the privilege to speak with in my professional capacity, speaking at schools across Canada, seemed to be using Twitter to advertise personal messages to peers without censoring content from the rest of the user community and the Internet as a whole, especially content that is controversial within their school or peer community.

Initially, my focus on the trend as it applied to youth was that these two British teenagers were taking isolated arguments commonly seen in high schools between teens to a new level and to a new medium with a public vantage point similar to what we had seen with Facebook wall posts. I started digging in my own backyard and I discovered a Twitter conversation between a youth and my local police department as the young man was choosing to vent his frustrations after being cited for a traffic violation on a skateboard. The Vancouver Police Department is considered a leader in North America as a law enforcement agency that currently uses Twitter to engage community dialogue and address concerns from the public. The Twitter user was irate about his violation notice and instead of opening dialogue through parents or counsel to learn more about the alleged offence, the teen chose to address the police through social media and seek a departmental apology in targeting people who skateboard.

The police who monitor the account did an amazing job trying to direct this Twitter user in the correct path of voicing his concern in court or directly with the department, but he still found his comfort in using Twitter to goad the officer into an online conversation addressing his personal issue. He eventually got to a point where he addressed the officer who monitors the account as "pussies" for not replying to his query in a manner that he thought appropriate and then asking for a new police officer to talk to. Never through the dialogue did he consider to stop tweeting and seek guidance from adults or his parents.

Has the use of Twitter provided an interactive stage to users who not only expect replies from their favorite celebrities (@onedirection has yet to respond to my numerous tweets), but who expect that any issue, criminal or personal, can be addressed, vented about or solved on Twitter?

In contrast, direct communication between peers as youth advertise personal events as it occurs is becoming more public through the use of Twitter. Schools, parents and the general public are not learning about every event that may be of concern to a school or community because the information is being shared so quickly that it may go unnoticed unless a concern is addressed offline and to administration or authorities.

Recently, I presented at a high school where the Grade 12 students made T-shirts welcoming the new incoming Grade 8 students to the school for the 2012-13 school year. This may seem fairly benign and in good fun -- until the content of the shirts was closely examined. The interesting aspect for me as a social media educator was that I learned about these shirts before school administration and before I walked into the building. This information was available to me only because the senior students choosing to share pictures of their homemade shirts on Twitter before ever putting the shirts on their bodies.

These shirts were covered in messages: "Welcum Grade 8's"; "Love Knows No Age"; "Insert V-Card Here"; "Welcum Grade 8 13itches." The students even included hashtags like #prospects and #welcum so that the T-shirts and subsequent online conversations on Twitter could become interconnected inside the school and online.

The use of these hashtags and the name of the school made searching the content online much easier but the students failed to realize that some of these messages might have legal implications beyond the creation of an offensive shirt for school. Concern from the parents was minimal because the content had not surfaced from the online environment, and if the school or police raised alarm when the shirts entered the school, the online content would still linger once the shirts hit the garbage. If mainstream media became involved in the event, the content would have followed the user online as it embedded in Google results (just ask Reece Messer if his tweet about Daley is deleted).

The hyper-sexualization of youth is becoming easier to recognize through Twitter and with every tweet about hook-ups, sexual preferences and subsequent bathroom self-shots, online reputations are being built in dangerous ways that hinder the prospects of professional and academic options in the future. Youth catch onto hashtag trends much faster than most Twitter users and there has not been an audience in my past year that has not referenced #firstworldproblems or that someone had #swag -- when schools and parents have to focus on all of this negative behaviour online, where does education about the issues occur and how does a classroom discover positive social media education opportunities that would of be benefit to a user group who could use social media for so much more?

Parents need to understand social media behaviors as they apply to their children. Youth will connect and share online and Twitter is just becoming a new speaking environment (there will be more in the future). Most importantly, Twitter has given them a platform to share and learn collaboratively but when children start sharing in an environment designed for and used primarily by adults -- why are we surprised when we learn that kids are laughing online because their friend is participating in #Twitterafterdark?