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How to teach your kids (and yourself!) social media etiquette

I teach a social media class at UMass Amherst, and my students were recently talking about the “etiquette” of social media. It was not something I had really thought about. Is there really etiquette on social media? And, if there is, do I need to start teaching my children about such etiquette?

As parents we spend a lot of time on manners:  Elbows off the table, firm handshake, respect your elders, look people in the eye when talking to them, etc. But the more I spoke to my students, the more I thought about the need to talk to my kids about social media etiquette.

So what is unacceptable behavior?

My students said they’ve seen breakups live-tweeted or live broadcast on Facebook. And a close friend of mine told me she saw a friend from high school live broadcast her marriage falling apart, including references to domestic violence. The broadcast was also filled with comments from Facebook friends offering support.

I recalled when my son and his “girlfriend” broke up in seventh grade and how there was a bit of a backlash. The animosity wasn’t public – it took place on Facebook’s messaging system – but friends of the girl were verbally attacking my son and his friends, making threats. At one point, one of the girl’s friends dropped the “N-word,” prompting me to take a screen shot of the exchange and send it to the guidance counselor.

The student was reprimanded, but I also had an opportunity to explore some of the ideas behind social media communication. Teen and pre-teens live in a world where the focus tends to be on them. Communication is often seen as one-to-one or one-to-several instead of one-to-many.  So, I tried to get my son to understand that you never know who will be reading your social media rants. The old adage seems appropriate here: “Don’t write anything you wouldn’t want your grandmother to read.”

I do remember that he garnered a bunch of Facebook comments when he changed his “in a relationship” status to “single.”  And, this is an issue for divorced parents as well. I’m friends with my son on Facebook, so I’ve been overly careful not to “share” too much about my divorce. And when I changed my relationship status I just left it blank – partially not to call attention to it (and possibly embarrass him) but also because I wanted to control the flow of information, not Facebook

And, ultimately that is one of the lessons we need to pass on to our children about communication in a social media world. Undoubtedly, there are parts of your life you want to share – successes, photos, moments of happiness. But everyone does not need to know everything.

So, Social Media Etiquette Rule #1: Think before you share (even if you are a teenager)

What other etiquette guidelines  should we be passing on to our children?

— Ask permission before tagging someone in a photo.  Again, tagging seems like a relatively innocuous act, but can definitely be viewed as an invasion of privacy by some. Accordingly, I make him promise that he will not post inappropriate photos – either of himself or others.

— Know who your friends are. Periodically, I will go through my son’s friends list to see who they are. Amazingly, he will not know some of them — he’s just looking to pack his friends list.  It just seems like common sense to keep your friends to who you know.

— Unfriending/blocking. The previous point brings us to an important juncture: when to unfriend and when to block people from your account. I’ve actually had people get upset with me when I unfriend them, and it’s a big issue with teens and pre-teens. Mashable has put together an interesting list of alternatives to unfriending  but in some cases there may be no other choice.

— Be appropriate. Ah, it can be tough to tell a 15-year-old boy to be appropriate. But language matters. It has the power to hurt as well as illuminate. Personal attacks and derogatory language should be considered completely out-of-bounds. My son once posted a critique of his math teacher on his Facebook account. Fortunately, I was in the other room and was quickly able to tell him to take it down. Which reinforces another issue – be friends with your children on Facebook.

— Be real. Finally, the one rule of social media that I try to pass along to both students and my children is that while social media is fun and convenient, there’s no replacement for the “realness” of face-to-face communication.  As with most things in life, balance is important.

Parents, as well as children, would do well to remind themselves of this fact.

Steve Fox