Even as the focus group on the ills of teen social media use progressed, at least two of the teen girls empaneled couldn’t resist the vibrating alert of their smart phones, so they slid their phones to their laps and tapped out a quick message.
The clandestine behavior didn’t get called out, but it highlights the challenges parents and teachers face policing teens in an increasingly connected society.
Social media is the “sex talk of this generation,” said Thomas Dodson, a Sacramento social media consultant who was part of a team behind the focus group. In other words, it’s the discussion many parents either don’t know how to start or don’t want to have about an ever-changing media landscape some moms and dads don’t fully understand. Their children’s digital playground includes the mass messaging Twitter to the photo sharing Instagram or Snapchat, which gives photo recipients seconds to view before disappearing.
“There is no proactive communication going on,” said Dodson, who runs Selvage Media. “The message they get from their parents is ‘Don’t go over the data plan. Don’t do any thing stupid.’ ”
The teen focus group, held in the conference room of a J Street office building, recently concluded after four weeks of focused conversations. A separate preteen group also met. The focus groups are part of the information gathering phase of an effort by life coach Aja Uranga-Foster, Sacramento State adjunct communications professor Shawna Malvini Redden and Dodson to help educate teens and parents on better navigating the social media world that is playing an increasingly larger role in how kids and adults socialize around the clock. The trio also plans to write a book, develop a smart phone application and create a speakers program.
Social media can empower teen users and broaden their digital and real world networks, but it’s easy to find horror stories about its misuse. In February, Michael Anthony Contini, 18, was charged with six felonies after photos of him and teen girls engaged in sexual acts were posted to a social media site. In some instances the girls, ages 14 to 17, appeared to know they were being tapped, said Dee Dee Gunther, a spokeswoman for the Roseville Police Department. Police declined to detail where the photos were posted or how they got there. Contini’s court date is set for Wednesday.
The incident garnered more attention because the age discrepancy made the sexual contact illegal, said Jess Borjon, principal at Woodcreek High School where Contini attended. But teen sexting has to be dealt with as seriously as teen drug use, Borjon said.
In response to the incident, at teen columnist at a nearby high school offered a partial defense of Contini.
“I am certain that the possession of images of this nature aren’t as shocking as officials, school and police, would like to believe,” wrote Katelyn Rolen in Roseville High School’s student newspaper . In an email interview with The Bee, Rolen said transmission of sexual images was “very common among any high school,” but rarely do they make it to the administration’s attention.
“Teenagers by nature are curious and rebellious and I think that sexual photos satisfy both of those evils. There is always talk in the hallways of who has seen what,” Rolen told The Bee.
Many of the teen focus groups participants had their own stories. One preteen boy talked about being jeered about his weight after posting a picture of food. A teen-age girl talked about losing a best friend because she posted a photograph of herself with boys her friend didn’t like and a third of the teens said they see sexual photos of classmates about once a month. The teens said they dealt with unsolicited sexual photos by blocking the sender, but did not notify school administrators. The teens were not identified to protect their privacy. The participants attended various area schools and were volunteered by their parents.
The focus group conversations included public social media use, texting and other direct communications and social video game behavior.
During the sessions, some of the kids talked about sneaking in an hour on social media after bed time, falling asleep with their phone in their hand and waking up to an alarm to see what they’ve missed while sleeping. While most schools have rules against cell phone use in class, kids described using a book to hide phones.
“They are finding ways to be on their phones all day long and sacrificing sleep,” said Malvini Redden.
Some of the preteen girls said they carefully curated their Instagram feed with hundreds of followers and add new content multiple times a day. If a picture they posted didn’t quickly get “liked” by several followers, the girls said they’d yank it down. Some said as much as 70 percent of their social media interactions were with people they knew only online.
While school’s generally resist allowing students to carry cell phones, safety-conscious parents want the ability to reach their kids during an emergency, Borjon said.
“I can remember a short time ago when only some of our students had devices. Now I don’t know students who don’t have devices,” he said.
Some parents restrict their child’s hours of Internet use or take away devices. But as early as age 11, the pressure to use social media can build for many children as their friends join the online world before them.
Sacramento mom Michelle Herrin-Larsen wrote of her nearly 12-year-old daughter’s push for Instagram on a Facebook thread on the subject. The urging was prompted because the girl’s best friend and several other friends have it.
But Herrin-Larsen wrote that she’s holding the line at her daughter’s text application and email.
“That’s plenty 4 her ... as well as added responsibility 4 us as parents! Internet use is a privilege in this house ... abuse it ... lose it!!” Herrin-Larsen wrote using the language of the medium. “It’s a full-time job monitoring our kids Internet use & keeping them safe!!”
The “Above the Fray” team has yet to formulate their recommendations, but they are unlikely to suggest parents try to prohibit social media use.
“We’re not encouraging prohibition,” said Uranga-Foster “This is part of our lives … being social in the modern world.”