Julie Smith speaks to a lot of schoolkids. At the moment, the Visiting Professor, School of Communications at Webster University, is gearing up for a student-led media conference in Syracuse, NY where she’ll be taking her message: social media isn’t going anywhere and kids and parents need to manage it. “Social media is like trying to get toothpaste back into the tube,” says Smith. “We need to tell [kids] how to do it right.”
In an era of fake news and an ever-expanding social media world, young people are spending their lives online. Whether they’re on Snapchat or Instagram, their online identities are subject to scrutiny and potential abuse, says Smith. And it’s a presence that needs to be monitored and managed, to ensure not only safety but social media wellness.
Note from a journalist, for journalists:
Prof Smith’s strength is in sound bites. She is current and relevant. Her affable nature make her a solid interview for stories on fake news, parenting features, the impact of social media, and media literacy. She has been interviewed by USA Today, the Washington Post, NPR, USA Today, and numerous regional outlets.
Expertise Finder spoke to Prof. Smith about her activism and research.
What role can parents play in monitoring their kids’ social media use?
What parents want is an easy solution – and there is no easy solution. There is no magic bullet. It really involves lots of conversation between parents and kids. Parents are really hungry for information on social media – practical information that doesn’t scare them to death. I talk to them about: here’s what Snapchat is. Here’s how the kids use it. Here’s what the terms of service are. Here’s how kids can get their feelings hurt on it. Here’s how kids can be passive aggressive on Instagram.
We can’t be afraid of it – we have to learn as much about it as possible, because knowledge is power.
What’s the message you relay to parents?
The kids aren’t going to stop using [social media]—the train has left the station. We have to help them cope with it now and use it their advantage. Instead of saying ‘Don’t post’, we need to tell them ‘Here’s the best way to do it.’ We used to say: ‘Don’t talk to strangers online.’ Now we say: ‘Here’s how you validate if the person you’re talking to is really who they say they are.’ We used to say: ‘Don’t take selfies.’ Now we say: ‘your picture should have plain white backgrounds.’ We’ve gone away from preaching to coaching.
Do kids understand that this is something they need to pay attention to?
I think so. I think they’re starting to figure that out. They are savvy. These kids have been creating media their whole lives. They narrate their lives for other people. The real challenge of working with high schoolers is getting them to acknowledge the role that the media plays in their lives. They’re never away from the media—they’re with their phones constantly. Teenagers now sleep next to their phones. So the big challenge now is to give them aware of the presence and the influence. I think some people are in denial about the role media plays in their lives.
Should kids take more ownership of their online identity?
Their story is going to be told online one way or another, so we want them to be the authors of that story. If they are really into photography, they should follow photographers on Instagram, and connect with people who have the job they want. Here are the dos: Do connect with experts. Do understand feelings of despair. Do have coping skills. Do understand the terms of service. Do understand the consequences. Do check the validity of online information. Do use Google Reverse Image search. Do use Google Search for your own name.
[High school seniors] need to have a fantastic profile on LinkedIn. You put your volunteer work on there, you put your service work on there. You put your hobbies and interests and skills, where you’ve gone to school, the teams you play for, the links to your website – it just really needs to be out there and positive and they need to be the authors of it.
What’s your take on social media overall?
I am not anti social media. Because that’s futile. We told kids for years not to talk to strangers online. And yet, when we use an Uber, we’re getting into a car with a stranger. We can’t be afraid of it – we have to learn as much about it as possible, because knowledge is power.
What are you working on right now?
I’m keynoting a student-led media conference, which is really exciting. There are kids who are really excited about media literacy. Typically, when I talk about media literacy to people, I’m usually trying to sell them on the idea. While I’m here I’m talking to librarians on ways to verify online information, I’ve been talking to K-12 teachers, high school counsellors – social workers – and parent groups. There’s a lot of audiences for this message.
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