We live in a digital world. Thanks to the social media, we are connected to people and information 24/7, no matter where we are. Social media has expanded the role of being a media consumer into one where people create and share as easily as they consume. While a site like Facebook appears to dominate, social media is much more than that. Social media is a wealth of applications—wikis, blogs, and curation tools in addition to social networks—that allow us to connect with other people, find information, and share all kinds of content, from videos and text to images. Mobile technologies like smartphones and tablets have removed the geographic boundaries for use and significantly reduced socioeconomic barriers. The appeal of social media is tremendous—it triggers our fundamental drive for social connection and allows us more control over our world.
While there are a lot of benefits to a mobile, participatory culture, from civic engagement, economic opportunities to education and entertainment, at the end of the day, our smartphones, laptops and tablets are just tools. As with all powerful tools, we have to learn how to use them well.
Social media and peer-to-peer networked communications are here to stay, redefining many of our assumptions about communications at home, work and play. Knowledge is the key to using new technologies and scholars and education experts agree that success in the 21st century is going to be increasingly rely on media and technological literacy made up of the following competencies:
Knowing how to effectively search and share information
Having the critical thinking skills to evaluate the quality of information
Recognizing the perspectives and agendas of media creators
Understanding the consequences of digital actions as an individual, such as safety and privacy
Developing ethical judgment and responsible digital citizenship, both interpersonally and legally
Learning the skills that enable creativity and self-expression
Social technologies can be very empowering. They let people take action on their own behalf any time, putting control in the hands of the use. With freedom come the responsibilities of self-knowledge and self-regulation. As with all things, the excessive use of social media and digital technologies can present problems.
Balance is key
While research does not support the fears about social media causing “addiction”, destroying empathy and social skills or turning a generation into narcissists, doing any one thing to the exclusion of others can create challenges. If you feel harassed and overwhelmed by information overload or pressure from all that connectivity:
Take the time to identify your larger goals, such as success at work or school, good relationships, or personal development.
Evaluate your social media use and determine if it’s helping you meet those goals–keep a social media diary for a few days to learn what you use, when you use it and how it makes you feel
Remember that you are the boss of your technology, not the other way around. Just because something rings or buzzes, doesn’t mean you have to answer
Give youself permission to take a technology break from time to time and remind yourself what it feels like to be unplugged
How you use your social media and mobile tools is unique to you and your goals. Don’t use others’ behavior to determine yours
A Word About New Technologies to Parents and Teachers:
There is a big difference in how different generations view social media and technology. Children need guidance to develop the skills it takes to balance their immediate needs with longer-term goals. The technology changes all the time, but the critical thinking to make judgments about how and when to use technology is transferable from one to the next. Whenever possible, negotiate media usage with children. Explain your concerns and goals and listen to theirs and then establish rules accordingly. It’s not possible to keep children and teens from using social media. By negotiating reasonable goals, however, you leave the door open if and when issues arrive and they have questions or need help. The biggest reason children don’t turn to their parents or other adults when they run into questions, like how to use privacy settings, or problems, like cyberbullying, is the fear that parents will take away their smartphone or computer.
For many parents, adjusting to the fluid way children use technology means overcoming their own fears. Remember to be patient and understanding: It takes a while for everyone—adults and children alike—to figure out new environments, learn new behaviors and to understand the interpersonal and professional implications of social media. However it’s only by using the tools that we will gain the skills we need to successfully navigate a digital world.
A version of this post was published on PsychologyToday.com in Positively Media.