Why Social Media Should be the New Driver’s Ed

By Laura Tierney
Teen and parent looking at smartphone

Smartphones are a lot like cars. They are incredibly important to teens and tweens, allow for a newfound sense of freedom and independence, and offer students more ways to connect with friends. However, with both cars and tech, the stakes for misuse can be high. So, how can we empower students to use social media and tech for good? Innovative schools are taking a cue from Driver’s Ed. 

Think about it—when it comes to driving, parents and educators team up to coach students on how to handle a vehicle safely—and that’s precisely how it needs to be with social media. More schools today are embedding social media education into their curriculum and inspiring meaningful conversations among students and faculty. As parents, we can also take our cues from how we train our kids to drive. 

First, we don’t just hand over the keys once they are of driving age. Instead, we spend years gradually teaching them the rules of the road. That gradual approach can be followed when it comes to tech, too. Students can start off using a shared family device in common areas of the home. During this learning phase, we encourage families to keep a close eye on their child’s or children’s tech use and talk often about who they are engaging with, what kind of content they are consuming, and what is off-limits. 

Second, just like teens need to know how to operate their car safely—adjusting mirrors, wearing seatbelts, limiting passengers—you can also walk through the safety features of their devices. Huddle with your child(ren) about the different privacy settings on apps to ensure they are set to your comfort level and that they understand how their device works and what is possible.

Next, plan ahead for rush hour. Just like traffic can slow us down, so too can the constant pings, dings, and rings of our phones. Knowing when to limit notifications or turn their devices to “Do Not Disturb” is just as important as knowing when it’s appropriate to be social with them. Coach your kids on “Striking a Balance,” especially during meals, homework time, and at least an hour before lights out.

And finally, prepare to course-correct when needed. Chances are, with driving and social media use, your child will make a misstep. Proactively work to keep the lines of communication open and ensure your child knows they can talk to you about any problems they encounter, online and in real life. Role-play various scenarios and how they would handle them. Here are a few conversation starters you can use with your own kid. 

  • You are part of a group text and one friend is not included and is being talked about in a negative way. How would you handle it? 
  • We all understand the pressures around responding to messages quickly. What is our family’s standard for how quickly we should respond to messages from each other?
  • Your crush asks you for nudes. What do you say? 

With more freedom comes more responsibility, whether navigating social media and technology or the roads of life. Buckle up and let your kids know that while there may not be a road map, you are there to guide them and show them the best route.

For more tips on how to navigate the current social media landscape with your kids, listen to Embracing the Digital World, a Notes from the Backpack National PTA podcast.

Laura Tierney is the Founder and CEO of The Social Institute, the leader in understanding student experiences and creator of #WinAtSocial, a gamified, online learning platform that equips students, educators, and families to navigate social experiences — online and offline — in positive, high-character ways. Follow Laura and her team’s work at @thesocialinst.

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