The news brims with incidences of teens (and parents) paying the price of posting on Facebook without thinking. Guest poster Joani Geltman, MSW, who has spent 30 years in the trenches with parents and adolescents, presents the problem and solutions.

Joani Geltman is the author of the new book, A Survival Guide to Parenting Teens: Talking to Your Kids About Sexting, Drinking, Drugs and Other Things that Freak You Out. Here, she explains ways to get through to your teen about the risks of social media:

“Attack a Teacher Day” 

Newspapers and the Internet are full of stories about teens using Facebook and other social networking sites as a public forum for everyone and everything they hate. For example, “Nevada Girls Arrested in Teacher Threat Case.” Six middle school kids, feeling negatively about their school experience, invited their fellow students on Facebook to take part in “attack a teacher day.” The challenge was to post as many crazy ways as they could think of to hurt or injure their teachers during the school day. The students took on this challenge with relish. An astute parent, supervising his teen’s Facebook wall, was shocked at the viciousness of the threats and called the school and the police.           

Another attentive parent found this conversation on his son’s Facebook wall: “Let’s commit a mass homicide. We’ll use gallons of gasoline and thousands of syringes full of bear tranquilizers, and hey how about shooting some guns at children.” Through their lawyer, the six ringleaders said they were only kidding. I guess they aren’t laughing now. They were arrested and expelled from school. Putting up a rant on Facebook is serious business! 

Facebook as Performance Space


Teens love talking “trash” and use Facebook as a performance space. Their imaginary “audience”—a term that describes a teen’s perception that everyone is looking at them and judging them—drives this behavior and contributes to the motivation to be center stage. It’s what drives much of the behavior that’s on Facebook, other social networking sites, and their cell phones. Sometimes teens post crazy things just to get noticed. And other times teens read the outrageous comments their friends post and try to “out outrageous” them. The audience awaits their “performance.”

Is It a Real Threat or a Joke?

You can’t lecture your teen out of this very normal part of adolescent development. You only need to think back to your own teenage years and the crazy things you did with your friends. But life in the 21st century is scarier, and rants and raves on Facebook, other social networking sites, and cell phones are public. Teen posturing on the field behind the school with their friends is different when it’s on a computer for thousands of people to see. It might be taken at face value. Is it a real threat or a joke? Given the number of school shootings, suicides, and bullying over the past few years, Facebook ranting is no joke.

Golden Rules to Share with Your Teen

Here is the conversation you need to have with your teen: First tell her about these stories and the consequences for kids who posted threats on Facebook “because it’s fun.” Then you can say, “I get that kids use Facebook to be outrageous, but they often forget that once something goes on that page it’s in the public domain. Even if you were only ‘fooling around,’ someone else might not read it that way. If you see something on Facebook that crosses a line, I hope you tell someone. You can do it anonymously if you want. But any threat could be a real one. Knowing that you could have done something but didn’t could give you a lot of guilt to live with. Posting something just because it sounds good without thinking it through can get you in a lot of trouble. Just ask these kids who are facing jail time. Here are some guidelines I think will help you in the thinking through process.”

Four golden rules for safe sharing on social networking sites: 

  • Will this post hurt someone’s feelings?
  • Will this post feel threatening to anyone?
  • Does this post give too much information about myself?
  • Is there anything in this post that another person could misinterpret?    

Go over them with your teen. Type them up and post them in the bedroom, or wherever your teen uses the phone or computer, as reminders of safe social networking. Tell your teen they are as important as the rules you have to learn before you can get your driver’s license.

When she rolls her eyes and takes down the rules, let her know that there will be no phone and no computer unless the rules stay up. This is an important strategy for bringing reality and mindfulness into your teen’s life. Call it a subliminal technique. Accidental glances at these rules while mindlessly typing away on their phone and computer day after day are bound to find their way into that teenage brain.          

I know kids will be kids. But between Columbine, Virginia Tech, Newtown, Aurora, and the Boston Marathon bombing, how do you know when someone is “just kidding”? I know Facebook is fun. I’m glad we have it. But as an adult,I am aware of the consequences. Unfortunately most teens are too swept up in their moment of “fun” to take the time to answer those four simple questions.           

Kids aren’t by nature “meanies,” but they feel the power of “the word.” It’s fun to shock. The trouble is that they don’t have enough life experience to know that sometimes shock creates fear, and fear creates action. Parents: Please continue to educate your teens about social networking and its power, the good, the bad, and the creepy.

Copyright @ 2014 Joani Geltman

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