by Michelle Cove, Executive Director MEDIAGIRLS
You’ve likely seen the first round of “Class of 2023!!!” posts on your social media feeds, whether it’s “I’m so proud of my daughter/son…” or ecstatic posts from high-school seniors donning sweatshirts with the name of their soon-to-be colleges. You’re probably not seeing updates from those who were waitlisted, deferred and rejected, waiting anxiously for the next round of news. This final leg of the college application journey, which two million U.S. high-schoolers face right now, is one packed with stress, crossed fingers and endurance. It is also an ideal time for us to talk to young people about the role social media plays in the choices we make around our well-being.
As the Executive Director of MEDIAGIRLS, a nonprofit in Boston that teaches girls and young women how to know their true self-worth and harness the power of media for positive change, I’ve heard from thousands of teen girls on their feelings about social media. At best, it brings joy through connection, entertainment, information, and inspiration. At worst, and way too often, it makes them feel lonely and insecure, acts as an impossible yardstick to measure their bodies, social lives and self-worth.
The good news is that our participants say they want something better on Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube and other favorite apps. The majority crave a healthier, more supportive space with authenticity and kindness. Given that young women dominate in numbers on social media platforms, they can drive this change. So what if we took the heightened drama of college notifications, which is about to go into overdrive in the next few months, to help our kids be more intentional about their behavior and choices on social media?
How to start a discussion with your teen
We can start by asking teens how they feel about seniors posting their college-acceptances on social media, and what their own approach might be. If they say of course they’ll post, we can ask, with curiosity and not judgement, for their motivations. Do they genuinely want to share a happy milestone and hard-earned victory? Fair enough. Or is it about more collecting “likes” and virtual shout-outs? Possibly it’s both, and there are no right or wrong answers. The point is to be more conscious about the messages we put out there and at least consider the feelings of others.
Clare Reynder, a senior at Vassar, struggled in her senior year with whether to post her early decision acceptance: “In high school, I was the first person in my class to get into college. I really wanted to post about in on Facebook and let everyone know, but I knew some of my friends hadn’t gotten into their first choices. I decided to wait until the end of the spring, when most people had confirmed which college they were going to. It was a way to share my good news while still trying to be thoughtful.”
Annie Stein, a junior in Needham, MA, is watching the college-notification process play out among seniors, and sees it differently: “Whenever I see a new post, it adds to the pressure, as my classmates and I venture into the college acceptance gauntlet. It’s a little bit daunting to think about everything that lies in between where I am now and where the seniors are. But that same intimidation is also a kind of motivation, a glimpse of the light of the end of the tunnel.”
Thinking through the options
Asking our kids to think about this process before hitting “post” or “tweet” or “send” gives us a chance to revisit discussions around empathy, internal validation, and who we want to be in the world. Says Savanah Macdonald, a prior college Mentor of MEDIAGIRLS and college graduate, “I don’t want to say college acceptance posts are entirely negative. But I can see how the posting frenzy can strengthen the false perception that success comes in just one form after high school. I think it’s okay to make college acceptance posts, so long as it’s done with humility.”
For those thinking kids should be resilient enough to handle the positive news of their peers and should avoid social media if they can’t, you have a point. Let’s talk to our kids about that too. If being inundated with others’ victories amps up their own stress, it’s a valid option to opt off social-media for awhile or at least reduce time logged on. In fact, knowing this is a perfectly good coping resource will serve our kids–as well as ourselves–on the many milestones our peers experience in waves, from job acceptances and engagements to marriage and babies.
It’s not just about talking with our kids about posting, but also the modeling we do. College notifications are a chance to be thoughtful on how we handle posting celebratory news on social media. Here’s what Madeline Hren, another prior Mentor of MEDIAGIRLS and college graduate suggests: “In my opinion, parents should proudly post about the school their children decide to attend, rather than posting about every single acceptance. This allows them to brag about their amazing kid by celebrating a new chapter in their lives, rather than sharing every way in which they have beat out other students.”
Lastly, we can talk to our teens about shaping their own narrative on social media and building their resilience. Maya (whose last name was withheld due to worries around college admission staff identifying her), a 17-year-old senior, was feeling anxious about getting deferred from her first college choice. She decided to post on Instagram “that while it’s awesome people are getting into colleges, I also knew other people, like me, had been deferred, waitlisted, or rejected.” She wrote about how this was all part of the process and said congrats to everyone for even applying and putting in their best effort. She ended the post by saying “it’s also okay to be disappointed.” Maya admitted posting was scary and also felt good.
Imagine a world of social media where the norm is people showing their authentic trials, tribulations and accomplishments, calling on each other for support, lifting one another up. Girls and young women, we look to you to lead the way.