Top 10 Things Adults Can Learn from Teens about Social Media

May 21, 2019

In collaboration with Common Sense Media, 826 National is excited to announce the publication of True Connections: Teen-to-Teen Advice About Social Media and the Digital World, a collection of first-person essays written by teens about growing up as digital natives.

True Connections features narratives from students across the 826 Network and beyond as they explore their relationship with the internet, social media, and the digital world. From refreshingly raw essays about internet addiction to eloquent explorations of digital disconnections, True Connections gives young writers the chance to ask big questions about what it means to strike a balance between real life and online life, and how to remain true to oneself in both. Joel Arquillos, 826LA’s Executive Director, edited the book and put together a list of things he’s learned from our young authors.


Top 10 Things Adults Can Learn from Teens about Social Media
By Joel Arquillos 

Joel Arquillos is the Executive Director at 826LA, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting students ages 6 to 18 with their creative and expository writing skills, and to helping teachers inspire their students to write. Prior to his role with 826LA, Joel was the founding Director of National Programs for 826 National and a social studies teacher in the San Francisco Unified School District at Galileo Academy of Science and Technology.


I get to learn amazing things from young people every day. I run 826LA, a nonprofit writing and tutoring organization that provides students ages 6-18 with writing support. Recently, I embarked on a project with 826 NationalCommon Sense Media, and The Hawkins Project to hear from youth around the world about their experiences navigating the internet. Their stories were meant to teach the next generation of youth about the pitfalls and possibilities of digital space, but I believe what they recount in the pages of the book, True Connections: Teen-to-Teen Advice About Social Media and the Digital World, could be helpful to all of us in many ways. As adults, we tend to think we know best, but young people have a way of distilling essential truths. If we’re smart, we’ll listen to their wisdom.  

Here are the top 10 things I learned:

  1. This will go on your permanent record

“Being an active member of the digital media world has taught me many things, but most of all, it taught me the need for professionalism and vigilance in everything you do, especially on social media or in the digital world.” —Meredity Comas, Manhattan, KS

How often have you found yourself tweeting about politics or making fun of an opposing sports team on social media using language or snarkiness you would never use with your friends, family, or coworkers? You do realize this is public record, yes? It’s now common for employers to Google job applicants. And if you do a bit of social media reconnaissance before a date, you can bet your possible-future-partner is doing the same. So be careful when you post pictures from your friend’s bachelor party or make rude comments about some celebrity who just had a meltdown. Take Meredity’s advice, and be more professional and vigilant in all you do, but especially online.

But you probably think you know all of this already, and you may say “But I have First Amendment rights!” And you do, but if you’re only reaching those who already agree with you, plus a few trolls, is taking a crude or aggressive stance worth it? Editing your online persona may just help you figure out what values you want to take a stand for, and what’s more trouble than it’s worth. Why not just be your best self all the time?

  1. Use your power for good (not just good looks)

“Social media is a powerful tool when used for good; it allows you to express your thoughts on an issue and keeps families connected. However, our generation has resorted to using social media purely for generating a positive self-image, and in doing so we have begun to fabricate completely false cyber personalities.” —Gracie Evans, Santa Monica CA

So instead of just looking for the latest gossip on Twitter during your break (or during regular work hours…) or posting selfies you’ve filtered so much you appear younger and better looking than you actually are, take Gracie’s advice and do something good instead. Focus on reposting positive stories or ideas that are genuinely going to help others. There’s plenty of sadness in the world and way more terrible news than we ever need or want to hear. Challenge the norm and yourself and put good out into the world. It may change you and those who follow you. But most of all, it might change you in a way that Instagram filters may never be able to.

  1. Err on the side of kindness

“But you should be yourself on social media. If you’re kind in real life, be kind online.” —Ruben Almash, New York, NY

If you’re like me and you grew up as a Gen Xer, sarcasm and irony were how you learned to cope with your emotions. Having grown up in the immediacy of the internet, Generation Z knows how fast things can get ugly. Take a page from our Gen Z brethren, who have a very healthy outlook and positive view of humanity. It doesn’t take much to rewrite that scathing knee-jerk remark–which is probably a result of years of unhealthy, trauma-inducing relationships that became emblazoned onto your psyche– with a productive and life-affirming tone. It can be transformative and can lead to less stress. So I’m told.

  1. Don’t spread fake news

“Both sides of the political aisle are guilty of creating and spreading fake news in order to feel superior and to advance their own agenda, and the fact that this happens makes me very annoyed with society as a whole.” –Shailaja Singh, Middleton, WI

I used to teach Social Studies, and the one thing I tried to make clear to my students is that there are many sides to a story, and that we need to ask the right questions in order to find the truth. Young people today are very critical thinkers. I’ve had great conversations with students at 826LA who are not fooled by the many one-sided views being pushed by media outlets, and don’t allow themselves to be locked into one way of thinking about our current political debate. Fake news is especially concerning since so much of it is put out there by entities and “bots” beyond our control. It’s more important than ever to continue to question the sources of information you read online and please, don’t share anything ridiculous that is clearly just clickbait. No one benefits from it. Just read Shailaja’s amazing essay about it in True Connections and you’ll understand.

  1. Safety first

“Don’t put yourself in danger for likes and followers.” —Jessenia Reza, Los Angeles, CA

You may believe you no longer care about how many “likes” or followers you get, but please be honest with yourself. I have many friends who regularly assess their worth based on their social media likes. And yes, I’ve done it too. It’s very common. And definitely don’t reveal personal information that could be used against you or yours. If you have children, like I do, ask their permission if you’d like to post something about them online. Or better yet, don’t. And like many of you, I’ve also had to witness my own parents become social media users in the last few years. It has been a bit challenging to count them among my “followers.” It’s especially hard when my own mom disagrees with a political opinion of mine and takes it upon herself to troll me. It’s embarrassing to say the least.

  1. Listen first

“Social media has become a tool for speaking without hesitation and eradicating listening.” —Madelyn Furlong, Montgomery, AL

When you read something that agitates you, it’s tempting to fire off a comment, a reply, a subtweet, or a rant of your own. But here’s an experiment: Just listen. Absorb what the person said. Take a walk and think about it (we could use the exercise anyway). Ask yourself where that person is coming from. Maybe you’ll still disagree, even vehemently, but you’ll create space for the person’s humanity, and you’ll be better for it. Maybe you’ll think, “My Tía Linda gets her news from the worst sources! But she’s probably also full of anger because her car broke down last week, so maybe I should just text her to see how she’s doing.”

I admit it, 5% of the time, the first thing that comes to my mind could be great material to share, but that leaves me with 95% of potentially dangerous and irresponsible thoughts that should not be put out into the world. There are some very famous people (whose names I’d love to mention here and castigate for their very irresponsible use of social media, but will not mention because that would go against what I’m trying to learn myself through this piece) who spend a lot of time on their devices and as a result, forget the norms and decency of  good and ethical communication. Remember to breathe when reading and responding to content you disagree with. Where does your anger or disagreement come from? Are you sure there’s no middle ground? Be diplomatic if you can.

  1. Anger management

“We all get to choose how to portray ourselves online; I can only hope that most people choose to be their best selves.” —Ruby Frederick, Seattle, WA

Okay, I need to say more about those well-known folks who spend most of their days on their devices churning out damaging content for the pure joy of it or to help a cause they support. It’s truly mind-boggling to me that there are adults in this world who get up every day and put hateful messages out there. Who are these folks who find joy in menacing and hurting others they disagree with? Many of these people are paid individuals who do it to hurt a cause or to lobby an opinion, while others just seem to get pure joy from being on the side of hate and repression.

There are those who are seriously in need of help but don’t know how to ask for it. They see lashing out as the only way to release their anger and frustration. But lately, in response to some of this online aggression, I’ve witnessed people using empathy and sincerity as a way to combat negative content (read Sarah Silverman’s response to an angry follower here and Patton Oswalt’s incident as well, here). And it has worked beautifully. Even to the point where the instigators apologized for their comments. Let’s cultivate more of that.

  1. Put your phone down

“. . .I was shamefully consistent with my attachment to the device. I would constantly stay up all night, and wake up early even, just to use my phone.” —Paolo Avila, Quezon City, Philippines

There’s nothing more annoying than spending time with friends while they spend more time on their phones. Has this happened to you? Or have you seen a couple at a romantically-themed restaurant with candles and expensive meals who are more engaged with their phones than in dinner conversation? What’s that all about? Or have you woken up in the middle of the night or stayed up late like Paolo to take in the light of your device and get absorbed by the internet? I’m told we need at least eight hours of sleep a night to live productive lives. Please sleep.

  1. Seriously, put your phone down, close your laptop, and unplug

“Even water, a seemingly simple force of nature, can carve out vast valleys, caves, or cliffs. It is truly these things that we take for granted and we should look up from our screens to appreciate the beauty that surrounds us.” —Alexander Klemmer, Pittsburgh, PA

I’ve been hearing a lot of talk lately about families taking a “sabbath” day off from their tech tools. A day where folks just spend the day playing board games, talking, and not once picking up a device. It’s scary to think we’ve become so addicted to social media and our phones that the completely normal act of connecting with other people has to be planned out in advance now. But, alas, that’s the world we’re living in and if we want to reconnect with ourselves and those we love, it’s not too hard to stop and take one day a week off and focus instead on being face-to-face with other humans and sharing stories, live! Or maybe take a hike with a friend and check out some of the wonder nature holds for us.

  1. Use technology to connect, not disconnect

“If you have the option, don’t hide behind a screen and deprive yourself and others of the beauty of human interaction. But if technology is your only choice, cultivate those relationships anyway. Whatever your situation, we need each other desperately; and a strong, deep relationship is always worth the effort.” —Cindy Green, Peterborough, ON

It’s true, many of us feel more comfortable and even safer interacting with others from our computers or devices. In many of the essays collected in True Connections, you’ll find stories about young people who felt it was easier to come out and be their true selves online before being open to others in their local community. You’ll also come across stories of youth dealing with trauma who found others online dealing with similar problems. One of the essays is about an autistic young man who had trouble navigating social environments, but by building up his confidence through interactions online, he was able to grow and feel better about engaging with people outside his home. The authors in True Connections make it clear that the internet can be and is an amazing resource for all of us as long as we use it wisely.

The world has undergone a tremendous change this past decade and we are still trying to understand the effects of social media on all of us. But one thing is certain: We are all responsible for what we say. We need to make room for more voices and not just create a bigger rift between our opposing views. But don’t take it from me. Read about it in the pages of True Connections and learn from the voices of the next generation trying to make sense of the world they inherited. We can be better. We all just need to listen more, post thoughtfully, and grow. 

–  Joel Arquillos

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