Promoting Social Media Wellness in a Digitally Disrupted World

Special Focus : Well-Being for Better Learning Outcomes
Life Skills March 21, 2019

Keeping kids socially, emotionally and physically safe online and in real life seems to be a daunting and relentless task. Over the past decade, just as one challenge is solved in our ever-changing digital world, two or three others tend to pop up.

In my two decades of work with students on executive functioning skills around organization, time-management and personal wellness in the heart of the Silicon Valley, I realized early on that we were having the wrong conversations with our kids about technology and social media use. Most of the education provided on digital citizenship has focused on fear-based abstinence—that is, attempts are made to scare kids into recognizing the consequences of poor choices, in the hopes that apprehension and shame will encourage them to stay offline. It can be easy to want to avoid it all, but in truth the digital world, when used properly, can be a useful and connective place for a lot of students and adults.

Effective digital citizenship goes beyond simply telling kids what to do and what not do. It provides students with a framework they can use as their worlds evolve, both online and in real life. Our most important work as educators in this new digital age is to give students the tools needed to develop a clear understanding of how intertwined their online and in-real-life experiences are, allowing them to recognize that they have powerful choices in how and where they spend their time.

It is critical to develop a framework that can transcend students’ devotion to any one app, website or platform. During the five years I spent on my most recent book, Social Media Wellness: Helping Teens and Tweens Thrive in an Unbalanced Digital World, many of the most popular apps students were using when I started writing had ceased to exist at some point during the editing process. For many parents and educators, it can seem nearly impossible to keep up.

Adult awareness of how and where students spend their time online and in real life is important, but it is even more crucial to help students become intrinsically motivated to make thoughtful and sage decisions whether or not adults are watching. In my work directly with students and consulting with schools around the world, I’ve found it most successful to provide programming that empowers students to use self-determination theory. They must be able to recognize their autonomy (they have choices in how they spend their time online), their competency (they are intelligent and are capable of making good choices) and their sense of relatedness or belonging (they find a way of belonging within their school or greater community that motivates them to make choices that reflect a sense of positive engagement).

To equip kids with positive, prosocial decision-making skills, I developed the Framework of the Three Ss:

Healthy Socialization: Encouraging kids to identify which online experiences feel energizing and which ones feel draining is the first step in helping them to understand that they have a choice in how they curate their overall online experience. Much of healthy socialization involves students developing awareness, whether about their Instagram feed or their larger sense of overwhelm. It can be a game-changer when educators and parents help students see how to opt into certain experiences and interactions, and how to opt out of others that might not be serving them well.

Effective Self-Regulation: Many students who come into my office want to manage their distractions and get their work done efficiently and effectively, but find it incredibly difficult to do so. That should be no surprise, since adults struggle with some of the very same issues. Helping students with compartmentalization and consistency are keys to providing them with the structure needed to build better habits. For instance, finding ways to help students compartmentalize their time so that they are focusing on one task—blocking certain websites, setting a timer for certain tasks and gamifying productivity by making monotasking fun—provides the structure kids need to develop habits that work well for them. Daily and weekly spaces for digital detox in a school setting—say, having no devices out during lunch or planning a “Power Down Day”—creates time and space for being offline.

Overall Safety: Even with the best education, tools and filters, things happen. Having students proactively identify what feels safe and unsafe, and who they will turn to if something doesn’t go as planned online and in real life is critical for making sure they feel supported. Being aware of privacy, data and tracking issues on different platforms—even on educational apps—encourages students to become active and informed consumers. Even though blocking, filtering and monitoring software can serve as a first line of defense in certain circumstances, it is more important for students to learn how to protect themselves not only from other people’s behavior but also from their own.

The challenges involved in helping kids to stay socially, emotionally and physically safe in today’s rapidly changing digital world may seem overwhelming. The Framework of the Three Ss guides educators in their work with young people, ensuring that they develop the intrinsic motivation needed to make positive, prosocial decisions online and in real life.

Ana Homayoun is a school consultant, keynote speaker, and author of three books, most recently Social Media Wellness: Helping Tweens and Teens Thrive in an Unbalanced Digital World. Learn more about her on her website or follow her on Twitter.