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Do Social Media Scare Tactics Work?

We want to protect our youth from the dangers of the world, but at what cost?  Today’s post has many more questions than answers.  Because we need a shift in perspective on how to educate students about the internet.

I bring an author to this post that I highly admire and respect, danah boyd. (yes that is how you spell her name, without capitals).  Author of It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens she has studied youths’ use of digital communication technologies, uncovering the complications both adults and teens face through social media.

boydShe writes, As a society, we often spend so much time worrying about young people that we fail to account for how our paternalism and protectionism hinders teens’ ability to become informed, thoughtful, and engaged adults.

I am researching college student leaders’ experiences and perceptions of social media.  We discuss growing up through the ages of AIM, Myspace, Facebook and beyond.

We also discuss the messages (or lack their of) from parents and teachers they received regarding about how to act online.

From this research I am also confirming boyd’s discovery.  The words and phrases “I have to be careful,” “I don’t trust the media” and “I don’t know what’s out there” are spoke again and again.

Of course it is important to protect and care for yourself online.  Bad things do happen and mistakes are made.  Digital Identity is a concept many adults still have not even heard of, let alone college students.  My participants have expressed more frustrations about adults acting bad on social media than their peers!

273829422_640But growing up in the digital age, students have been given scare-tactics as their curriculum about online behavior.  Shows like ‘To Catch a Predator’ invade the minds of parents and children alike.  All while parents and teachers preach only the “Don’t do this, don’t do that.

So what CAN they do?!?

boyd backs me up on this.

Contemporary youth are growing up in a cultural setting in which many aspects of their lives will be mediated by technology and many of their experiences and opportunities will be shaped by their engagement with technology. Fear mongering does little to help youth develop the ability to productively engage with this reality.”

As educators, have we taught students positive and productive digital behavior?

Do students have role models online?  I would argue not enough.  We see the epic fails from tweets gone viral day after day but what about the good stuff?  Can we find users utilizing social media to build stronger communities?

Snapchat_logoWith the pressure surrounding students with regard traditional social media platforms it’s no wonder high school and college students are flooding to private more applications like SnapChat that give a closed mechanism to digital communication.  But even with this app the generation gap appears again, with many adults reacting to Snapchat as a concerning platform.  Asking, “why would you want to ‘hide’ something?  Surely it has to be only for bad things.”

Most youth aren’t turning to social media because they can’t resist the lure of technology. They’re responding to a social world in which adults watch and curtail their practices and activities, justifying their protectionism as being necessary for safety.” -boyd

tumblrTeens also admitted to Boyd that they reason the flock to new platforms is to be where their parents are not.  One of these is Tumblr, where many of my participants do not go by their true identities nor share their content with friends or family.  Tumblr has been expressed as a raw version of themselves.  An outlet that wouldn’t be allowed on Facebook or Twitter.

I believe the fear that has been infused into the minds of students is the root of some of the erratic behavior we see online such as acting out on social media.  This phenomenon raises talking points when I speak to college students about using social media for social good, they respond with intimidation.

For example, recently I asked students if they had ever actively participated in a trending hashtag based upon a social justice event/conversation such as #YesAllWomen or #Ferguson.  I heard concerns that it wouldn’t be worth it, worried about people’s perceptions, staying quiet because they didn’t feel completely informed and confusion where they would even start.

These hesitations are also prevalent in adults.  Pew Research recently reported on Social Media and the Spiral of Silence,

“A major insight into human behavior from pre-internet era studies of communication is the tendency of people not to speak up about policy issues in public—or among their family, friends, and work colleagues—when they believe their own point of view is not widely shared. This tendency is called the “spiral of silence.”

This research looked at 1,801 adults based upon the Edward Snowden’s revelations of government surveillance of Americans’ cell phone and digital communication records.  Overall, adults didn’t want to be part of the conversation about this story online.  Pew believes, “It also might mean that the broad awareness social media users have of their networks might make them more hesitant to speak up because they are especially tuned into the opinions of those around them.”  The report confirms self-censorship in the face of possible controversy with others they know.

As an educator have you been part of a global digital dialogue? Experienced controversy with civility or challenging discourse online?

How can we expect our students participate if we haven’t done so ourselves?

30767838_mWe need to give our students examples.  Being a positive citizen online is a great start for students (and all adults actually).  But if we are living out our missions, to produce agents of positive social change, we need give them tools on how to do this on social media.  Answer the question, what does leadership behavior look like online?

But many fear the worst case.  That is the cost of scare tactics.

danah boyd explains, “Teens are struggling to make sense of who they are and how they fit into society in an environment in which contexts are networked and collapsed, audiences are invisible, and anything they say or do can easily be taken out of context.”

We need to give them context.  We need to give them trust. AND take note…“Fear is not the solution; empathy is.” – danah boyd

As you look to teach students about social media, inform them about the realities of the internet,

but empower them to be smart and not scared.

What are you hearing from your students?  Do they trust the media?  What messages did they receive growing up about the online world?  What is working on your campus to teach students to use social media for global dialogue?

boyd, danah. (2014).  It’s Complicated: Network Lives of Teens.  New Haven + London: Yale University Press.

Hampton, K., Rainie, L, Lu, W., Dwyer, M., Shin, I., & Purcell, K. (2014).  Social Media and the Spiral of Silence.  Pew Research Internet Project, retrieved at

About Josie

I’m Dr. Josie Ahlquist—a digital engagement and leadership consultant, researcher, educator, and author. I’m passionate about helping people and organizations find purposeful ways to connect, engage, and tell their unique story. I provide consulting, executive coaching, and training for campuses, companies, and organizations that want to learn how to humanize technology tools and build effective and authentic online communities.

My blog and podcast have been recognized by EdTech Magazine, Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. My book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education, was published in 2020 and was listed as a #1 new release for college and university student life. I have been growing my consultancy since 2013 and am based in Los Angeles. When I’m not helping clients lead online, you might find me training for a triathlon, spoiling my nieces and nephews, or exploring with my husband and our rescue dogs in our new RV called Lady Hawk.

I’d love to connect! Find me on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

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