Pittsburgh company helps teens navigate social media

(AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Some celebrities and athletes say dumb things on social media, and they’ve learned the hard way what kind of damage the wrong tweet or post can do. Teens are making the same kinds of missteps on social media. Many are unaware of the consequences.

A local company aims to help students better navigate the complicated worlds of high school social life and social media. It has developed a lesson for high school kids that makes them think before they post.

Socialize Right was developed by Eric Sloss, Cynthia Closkey and Sarah Mayer of Shift Collaborative in East Liberty, a marketing and communications agency that manages social media campaigns along with traditional marketing and communications.

Misuse of social media and inappropriate postings are “pervasive” in middle and high school, said Susan Miller, an educational consultant who works with Socialize Right.

Kids have migrated away from mainstream social media sites such as Facebook, in part because their parents and grandparents are there, and in part because sites like Vine and Snapchat offer more in the way of video. Some popular social media apps like After School allow members to post anonymously— or even post something using someone else’s name.

“That’s how complicated it is in schools right now,” Miller said. “You really don’t know who’s doing it. You don’t have the ability to be the cyber detective, but we’re still dealing with the aftermath.”

Shift Collaborative teamed up with KDKA-FM sports talk host and former Pittsburgh Steelers punter Josh Miller for a presentation for the Cincinnati Bengals on using social media effectively. (He is not related to Susan Miller.)

“That kind of inspired this idea, because I see my students and our clients using social media in various ways,” said Sloss, who also teaches social media and public relations at the University of Pittsburgh’s department of communications. “There’s a huge learning curve. We teach parents to clarify the complicated ever-changing social media landscape, as well as encourage students to think about their digital legacy.”

In the Socialize Right school presentations, Josh Miller, who also played for the New England Patriots and the Tennessee Titans, serves as a role model and social media coach for the students by drawing on his own experiences and those of others in the sports arena to tell cautionary tales about the pitfalls of social media misuse.

“As a host of the radio program, Josh is always reporting on ways that athletes are messing up in social media. It was a natural fit,” Sloss said.

“I couldn’t have done what you guys do. You guys are always under the microscope,” Miller told a recent assembly of seventh- to 10th-graders at Springdale Jr.-Sr. High School. “Be careful of what you put out there. They follow you.” He told them anecdotes about sports figures who lost lucrative contracts because they tweeted something stupid, and about the backlash he had from a tweet he once posted about not liking cats: “It could have been avoided.”

Socialize Right shows students how to use social media responsibly, to project a positive image of themselves online, and to protect themselves from the common problem of cyberbullying.

The presentation cites Pittsburgh Pirate Andrew McCutchen and singer Taylor Swift as good online role models to follow, because they project themselves as real people on their social media accounts. Students on the threshold of college or the job market learn that colleges and prospective employers will check their social media posts to see what kind of person they are.

“You have a digital legacy that’s going to last forever. Your online digital record will haunt you.” Sloss tells the students. “Pause, then post.”

During the presentation, students were asked to raise their hands if they had ever been bullied online. Most did. Then they were asked if they knew anyone who had been a target of cyberbullying. Almost every hand went up.

Cyberbully targets are vulnerable 24/7, with no place to hide. Posts include foul language, sexually explicit content, racial and gender bias, hate speech and physical threats. “Those are the constant themes that run through these social media channels,” Sloss said.

However, there are legal consequences: Under Act 26, an amendment to the state crimes code that was passed in July, cyberharassment of a child is a third-degree misdemeanor, with fines up to $2,500 and/or one year in prison.

But teens often don’t realize those consequences, said Terry O’Hara, a consulting psychologist for Socialize Right. “The adolescent brain is a developing, evolving brain. There’s typically more impulsivity.”

He cites research studies that indicated that kids who are bullied are at increased risk for depression and other psychological issues. Bullies are at risk, too: “Kids who are the bulliers have more difficulties in relationships, with substance abuse, employment, involvement with the police.

“It’s really important to respond to bullying behavior in an assertive manner. Bullies are looking for a passive object,” said O’Hara, who has offices in Lawrenceville and Greensburg. “It’s really important to monitor and check in with one’s kids about what’s happening so there can be some sort of intervention.”

Getting educators and parents involved in the process can make a difference, O’Hara said. “When they have a supportive resource that shows some understanding of what’s happening, that can create ways for children and adolescents to respond in a different manner.”

Socialize Right encourages kids to hang out with trusted friends on social media sites. “If a friend intervenes in a bullying, the bullying stops almost 90 percent of the time,” Sloss said. “If there’s a trusted person there— not the parent but a friend —that could help intervene in some of these confrontational conversations.”

Not allowing one’s kids to use social media sites isn’t the answer, said Susan Miller, the educational consultant. “That’s like telling a kid don’t talk to your friends. That’s how they’re talking. We need to teach them the appropriate way to do it.”

This is one of the first generations of parents who have to deal with the problems their kids can have with social media, and it can be just as confusing for them. Parents can visit the Socialize Right website for guidance on monitoring their kids’ online activity.

“We want to build an online community of parents where they can share their experiences and learn from each other how complicated this issue is,” Sloss said.

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Online: http://bit.ly/1Z8hwD9

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Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com

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