Monday, March 24, 2014

In Defense of Social Media

For a person my age (cough, cough) I think I'm pretty social media conscious.

So after listening to a police officer speak about the dangers of social media, while I had to agree that unfettered access by children and teens can be risky, I still had to disagree.

I don't have to worry about starting an argument. He nor his wife have Facebook and I'm pretty sure Twitter, Google+ and Pinterest aren't part of their lives either. The same cannot be said for me, although there are days I hardly look at it and most of my access is in the early morning or at nap times.

Truthfully, he did have some good points. It would be easy to miss life if we're too busy keeping up with all the social media that we can access. We could be so busy bragging on our kids' achievements that we miss the really important stuff they do. We could be so wrapped up in finding the perfect recipe for dinner that we don't cook, or that next wonderful craft project for the kids that keeps us from just sitting down and making a fun mess. And it's definitely easy to type the wrong thing in a moment of anger and cause a firestorm among a circle of friends when what you really need to do is talk to the friend you're angry with, or if they are not really a friend, remove them from your circles.

For children and teenagers, there is an additional risk because not everyone using the sites is really who they claim to be. They can make connections with people who don't need to be in their lives, be exposed to things they aren't prepared to deal with, and, through trust or emotional moments, overshare in ways that make them vulnerable and may haunt them and their friends for a long time. Manipulated by a predator, angry kids can be further turned away from their families and wind up in a dangerous place. That is where parenting comes in and I'm saying don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. I think controlled and monitored access at an age appropriate time is better than a ban, but then the officer in question has a 3-year-old so that isn't an issue for him.

What happens when the child is older and has had no access until he's at a friend's home where there aren't even any guidelines? To me that child is way more vulnerable than if he'd been raised with some constraints. When the whole experience of social media involves sneaking around and is therefore titillating, how much easier will it be it take it a step further? Suddenly he's as at risk as the woman who makes a blind date through an on-line dating site, assuming he is as good looking and successful as he claims to be, and then gives him her address.

In general, I had to agree with the points he made about social media and our children. We do need to be aware, be savvy and keep up.

But I don't think we do that by denying them or ourselves access -- obviously.

For friends and families far flung across the state, the nation, or sometimes even the world, social networking is a convenient way to stay in touch. While my closest family is in and out of my house on a near daily basis, my parents, sibling and cousins are a state away, my in-laws are hours away, and we're all living busy lives. Facebook allows us to touch base with each other within seconds and much more regularly than we could by trying to plan a visit. We can keep up with how one another's children/grandchildren are growing and the highlights of life. Phone calls let us keep up with the less celebratory events.

Facebook has also allowed me to find a few old friends and there's some solace in even that gossamer thread of connection. No, we don't talk or visit, but we share a common history, moments when we were the potentially at-risk teens fumbling through high school and trying to figure out what life would mean for us. No, we may not really know one another's lives through social media, but we do know we've survived, we share some of our lives' moments moving forward.

Anyone living in a rural area, isolated by the work they do or by health, finances or even something as suddenly life changing as retirement, can find a connection to the world in social media. It can keep a person from feeling so alone as they deal with the issues of their day.

Even busy people with active lives can find something in social media and the virtual community bulletin board it provides. They can keep up with events involving their church, club or civic organization, or even news that affects their community. They can ask for and give encouragement in tough times, and find prayers, jobs, community resources and places to turn when their immediate circle of friends and family doesn't provide the support they need.

In my case, and for people like me, it has been a lifeline.

When Ethan died in December, it was a way to let people know -- my friends, his friends, people I could have called and people I had no way to reach.

As another grieving mother put it, within minutes I was receiving a virtual hug from dozens and dozens of people. No, it doesn't take the place of the real hugs and shoulders, but reeling in the aftermath of tragedy, a virtual connection is far better than being alone.

In the days, weeks and months since that time, it's been somewhere I could go every day for an extra dose of support to get through whatever life was throwing at me. Because of where I live and what I do, I'm often isolated and alone (well, from adults at least) and I'm certainly not going to spend all day trying to find someone who has time to talk and understands. I don't have time to attend a support group for grieving parents. But I can reach out through cyberspace and connect with people who are stumbling through the same heartache and we can help keep one another going.

I have friends who have lost children and they have been tremendous support for me. Ethan's addiction made his loss just a little different though, and created different issues for me as a mother. Because of social media, I've been able to share that aspect of my loss as well. I've made new friends who are dealing with addiction, or sometimes the aftermath of losing that battle, and we support one another. Many of us have gone beyond virtual friends and we've cried together on the phone late at night, or stood talking and crying in a parking lot. I've prayed for them and wept for them and I know they've done the same for me.

Even imagining where I'd be today without the outlet of social media is impossible. I no longer accept the idea that we cannot be friends, reach out to, be influenced by, or make a difference in the lives of people we can't drive to visit. And I do not believe that it is always, as some people do, a bad thing.

Among many other things, the last three months have taught me that isn't true.

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