When I graduated from college I had no plans to be a teacher or a writer. Instead, I was desperately looking for a job in politics...and failing. Six months later, tail between my legs, I moved back to Washington D.C., where I'd grown up. It was Christmas time and I reluctantly went to a family party hoping I wouldn't have to answer any well-meaning questions about my future plans.
But I went and no one asked me those questions. Instead, people wanted to ask me about the rumors: Was it true that I'd just gotten a black belt in karate? Yes, it was true. I'd been studying martial arts throughout college and was pretty obsessed. People couldn't believe it. To say it mildly, we aren't a physically tough family. Then someone asked if I could teach self-defense to their daughter. I looked at my boyfriend (also a martial artist and now my husband of many years) and said, "Why not?" I didn't have anything else to do.
That is how at 22 I taught high school girls self-defense. It's how a year later I ran a violence prevention program. It's what gave me the opportunity to ask the questions I've never stopped asking.
What targeted someone for social cruelty?
What made people witness cruelty and not intervene?
What made people humiliate others?
And how can adults most effectively talk to young people about these crucial issues?
Twenty years later I'm still figuring out the answers, and I'd like to share a few things I've learned along the way. Whether it's in the hallway, the locker room, or online, it's inevitable that young people will face complex social conflicts. And adults need to give them advice that accurately reflects their lives.
But in order to give good advice it's critical to acknowledge that sometimes our assumptions about young people get in the way.
For example, many adults believe young people impulsively reveal their private lives for the world to see. That's just not true. Most kids are deliberate about what they post. Think of it this way: Young people pay a lot of attention to their clothes, hairstyle and shoes because it's how they show their identity to the world. They often change how they act or what they say in relation to who is around them. There's no difference between the decisions they make in "real life" and what, how and who gets to see certain information they post on their Facebook timeline or other social networking platforms.
Teens are showing deliberate behavior, and this is supported by a recent survey taken by Pew, who discovered that the majority of teens who use Facebook set their profile to either fully or partially private and 70% of them have sought outside advice about how to manage some aspect of their privacy online.
If we base our parenting on assumptions and stereotypes, our kids will understandably be defensive and be much less likely to listen to or seek advise from us or listen to our values when they're torn about what they should do in a conflict.
And that's why I've contributed to the Facebook Guide for Educators and Community Leaders with a few points of advice for the adults in our teens advice:
First, understand their world. Sometimes adults think about the difference between online life and offline life, but for teens, it's just life. Just as teens are playing on the soccer field or interacting with other kids at school, they will be interacting online too. Social media is an extension of life.
Second, show respect. It's important to show teens a level of respect as they create a space online that allows them to communication and express themselves. Yes, go ahead and friend your kids on Facebook, but show them the same respect that you show them in other public situations - this is not the place to correct their grammar or spelling, or criticize them in front of their friends.
Third, encourage their critical thinking. One of the best pieces of advice to give a teen using any social media platform is to think before they post. Take the opportunity to remind them that anything they post can be copied, pasted and sent around in ways that they did not intend. If they have any doubts about whether, down the road, they will be comfortable with something they post, it's better not to post it in the first place. If they do post something they later regret, they should immediately sincerely apologize to the recipient and offer to make amends.
Our children need good guidance from the people who love them. I know as a mother and teacher that when kids feel they have that in their lives, no matter what kind of experiences they have, wherever they have them, we're all better off.
The Facebook Guide for Educators and Community Leaders offers advice and tips for the adults in teens' lives about how to understand social media, generally, and Facebook specifically. The guide features content from a variety of sources, including the Family Online Safety Institute, WiredSafety, ConnectSafely.org, and Edutopia. You can find the guide on the Facebook Safety Page here.
Rosalind Wiseman is a parenting educator and author of Queen Bees and Wannabes. Her latest book – Masterminds and Wingmen: Helping Our Boys Cope with Schoolyard Power, Locker-Room Tests, Girlfriends, and the New Rules of Boy World – has just been released