Sunday is Social Media Day (#SMDay) – but are SA teens socially savvy?

Sunday 30th June is International Social Media Day – #SMDay – a day when the impact of social media on communication is globally recognised and celebrated. But for some, the fact remains that social media is having an effect on adolescents that demands serious attention.

“We teach social media safety and digital life skills in schools, and see first-hand the mental and emotional health impact of social media on teens and tweens, but also we see the impact of this on teachers and parents as we train them too – this three-dimensional access has become a unique vantage point for us on social media, ” says Dean McCoubrey, Founder of MySociaLife, South Africa’s leading Digital Life Skills Program now rolling out in schools across the country.

As social beings, humans like to share, learn from each other, receive acknowledgment, and join in communities. That makes humans feel good, literally, receiving a chemical boost of oxytocin or dopamine – a reason for the billions of likes and shares each year.

In fact, social media only really took off when Facebook introduced the ‘like’ or ‘thumbs up’ in 2004 and has shaped the industry since then. But, at the recent Facebook F8 Developers Conference,  Instagram is proposing a new feature that would hide the number of ‘likes’ displayed on a user’s pages, which will potentially effect its engagement rate (3.21%) comparisons to other social media networks (1.5%). Simply put, times are changing.

The spontaneity of information on social media also makes it an excellent research tool, accessing up-to-the-second information and making us feel connected and current. It’s faster than a traditional news feed. But not always reliable.

“For teens and tweens they take social media at face value, believing the snapshots of other people’s lives and forcing us (adults and children) to compare their lives against someone else’s ‘highlight reel’ – otherwise known as a ‘toxic mirror’. It effects the self-esteem of many teens as they seek to establish identity,” says McCoubrey.

“In addition, our in-school program conducts anonymous surveys with thousands of students, and these are showing extraordinarily high bullying statistics online. In one school we saw 62% of students say there bullied and yet 58% also admitted to bullying. The lowest so far has been 24% which is still way too high. A public life can invite comparison, criticism, and taregting – consider that Instagram has been labeled as the largest cyber bullying platform in America,” he adds.

Social media also delivers an individual’s ‘lens’ on a topic or story, and naturally followers and fans like it when it confirms a bias, which isn’t entirely healthy.

“We need to see multiple sides to any story and ask questions. This is the reason parents see the main module of the program, ‘critical thinking online’ – the ability to challenge our assumptions and see the difference between real and fake, and safe and dangerous – as the number one tool to teach our young learners.”

“The truth about social media is that we will have to get proactive in educating teens and tweens about the pros and cons of the various platforms, their privacy settings and the risks. Eduaction is the only way to equip them to deal with the negatives, and to gain the most traction from the positives, and yet there is very little structured and researched education available on this in South Africa,”  McCoubrey adds.

“Social media is about communication – and while it requires education from teachers and parents, we find they themselves are at a loss and need a specialist in the field who understands the different technologies, youth culture, a wide diversity of online issues and warning signs, while advising smart ways to enjoy the platforms safely.

MySociaLife is ‘pro technology’, it’s simply about making kids safe and smart online through ten one-hour modules spread over a year – covering ten different aspects of life online. This wide range of training is the only way to get our kids up to speed as we enter the next decade. Schools need guidance in this area. Our survey data has shown that to be fact, not fiction,” McCoubrey concludes.

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