This spring, I was invited to present for a series of Internship Days for our Career Education Department. I didn’t hesitate; I love any opportunity I get to speak to students and I really enjoy working with our Career Education Department. They provide extremely relevant and engaging experiences for their students and teachers, alike.
For this year’s Internship Days, nearly 200, high school Juniors, from all Omaha Public Schools high school, magnet programs and academies were invited to participate. These events were held on multiple dates throughout the spring and included partnerships with businesses including First National Bank, First Data, Union Pacific, and more. They had guest speakers from each respective business and other community members, myself included. My charge? I was asked to speak with them about their digital footprint and how it can impact their future.
As a former high school English teacher, and a complete empath by nature, I get teenagers. I lived their experiences and I remember them VERY well. While I didn’t experience all of the implications of social media the same way they do today, I was on the cusp of it during some extremely formative years as a young adult. I made mistakes on the Internet and I learned the hard way from them…but I’m getting ahead of myself.
My talk with our students was titled “Building Your Personal Brand: Landing the School Choice or Career You Really Want.” My main objective was to help students understand that they can use social media for good, in order to create a positive reputation for themselves.
You see, over the last several years, I believe that we as adults have done a very good job of providng youths with a healthy fear of using social media. Teachers, parents, and all other adults tell kids every single day, “Don’t mess up on the Internet,” “Don’t post anything negative to social media,” “If you make a big enough mistake it will ruin your chances of getting into college or of getting a job.” We’ve spent so much time warning children that they have the power to destroy their lives, that they are hearing the message loudly and clearly. So loudly that today, when kids DO make digital mistakes (and they will) they truly believe that there is no escape from the damage they may have caused their own reputation, or that of their friends or family. This mindset is not healthy.
My opinion of this was reinforced this week after hearing Reid’s Story from Dr. Mark Alder and his wife, Joni at the 2017 NETA Conference. Dr. Adler is the superintendent of Ralston Public Schools, of one of our Omaha-Metro area school districts. In January of 2016, their family lost their only son to suicide. I share the story of their son with high-school aged students that I speak to.
Today, I learned from the Adlers’ presentation that in the state of Nebraska, suicide is the number one cause of death for children between the ages of 10 – 14. And we aren’t talking about this enough.
(Pictured above is a photo provided to and published in the Omaha World Herald by the Adler family. The full story is linked below.)
Research tells us that a teen’s mind isn’t fully formed until they reach adulthood. The same portion of the brain that is still developing (the frontal cortex, or frontal lobe) is also the part of the brain responsible for decision making. According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, adolescents are less likely to think before they act or to pause to consider the consequences of their actions. As a former 9th grade English teacher, I can tell you from experience that teachers and parents of teenagers frequently see this behavior in action.
As an educator, I truly believe that we can empower young people by spending less time planting seeds of fear when it comes to online behavior and instead, share with them the positive power of social media and how to use it to their advantage.
When I spent time with our internship students, discussing how to build a personal brand, I shared Reid’s story in addition to my own. In this presentation, we also discussed the definition of digital citizenship and digital footprints and I empowered them with clear objectives for the day:
We participated in an activity where I had students Google their first and last names and really dive deep into the search results, carefully checking out web links and images attached to their names. This activity is often an eye-opener as many of these students have never Googled themselves before. Our conversation was engaging as I had students share what surprised them. I received responses ranging from “I found an obituary,” to, “Someone with my name has a felony warrant out for their arrest,” and “I found my middle school Twitter account.” We used this as an opportunity to share what students can do to differentiate their own digital footprint from someone who shares their name. We also talk about how to take steps to clean up what they do see about themselves if they are less than pleased.
My favorite part of the conversation is when I got a chance to share my story with them. The evolution of my social media journey starts with AOL Instant Messenger (1997) all the way through Facebook (2004) and beyond to today. I told them about how it used to take five minutes to connect to the Internet through a dial-up modem just so we could spend 20 minutes chatting with our friends on AIM after dinner. I told them about how when Facebook came out in 2004, it was only for college students with college email addresses. My mom wasn’t on Facebook. My 12-year-old brother (at the time) wasn’t on Facebook. Even my friends who I graduated with but who chose to enter the workforce (therefore weren’t in college) weren’t on Facebook. I drove things home for these students by reminding them that at this point in my life, when I was introduced to Facebook, I was a 20-year-old, sophomore in college. I prompted them by asking, “Do you think when I was a sophomore in college that I was a perfect angel, 100% of them time? Do you think I was being a perfect college student, only studying and going to class every day?” They usually respond “No!” And they are correct. I told them that while MY frontal cortex eventually became fully-developed, I spent a portion of my late teens and early 20’s navigating the social waters of high school and college too and I made mistakes, just like many of them have or will do. I shared with them that I posted content online and shared messages among friends that I am not proud of, but much of that changed for me when Facebook opened up its platform to all users, aged 13 and up. It really struck me when my little brother was able to join Facebook as this helped me realize that social media was here to stay and I was going to have clean up my online act and serve as a positive influence for those younger than me exploring social media.
This was the dawn of the digital footprint, and while mine wasn’t always perfect, I used this realization to begin to take ownership of what I wanted my online (and real life) reputation to be. Today, it is my personal mission to help young people harness to power of digital media directly, through the professional development of their teachers, and through outreach and education of their parents.
Digital parenting and teaching with technology are awesome responsibilities. We have an opportunity to help our students and children realize that they can use media for good in the world. They can create online resumes, portfolios, and blogs. They can have public-facing social media accounts where they post photos of themselves volunteering, coaching little league teams, and participating in school activities. They can organize and be activists, using these tools to generate interest and an audience. And we shouldn’t stop them from this. We need to continue teaching them social/emotional skills like empathy and compassion. We must be open and willing to lend an ear for when they fear the worst from mistakes they may make. We need to encourage them that when all else fails and they feel they’re in the thick of all things, that this too shall pass. They can overcome. They will overcome. Better than that, they can rise above and use their digital presence to promote their awesomeness.
*Special thanks to Dr. Mark Adler and Mrs. Joni Adler for sharing Reid’s Story and allowing me to do the same. Your strength and courage to empower others through your journey is humbling and inspiring. Together, we can #BeKind and #EraseHate.