The story of Rogers, Minnesota student Reid Sagehorn has been all over the media recently for replying to a rumor via Twitter. Sagehorn was suspended for replying “Actually, yes” to a rumor that the high school senior was having an affair with a teacher. His response was perhaps meant to be sarcastic, but the school district saw it differently. Although the rumor was investigated and found untrue, Sagehorn was suspended for two months.
The school district viewed this as an incredibly serious issue, as the teacher’s reputation could have been permanently damaged. Some voiced that kids need to learn the consequences of social media, and Sagehorn’s actions should be a cautionary lesson. There were also students who petitioned online to #FreeReid. Whichever side you take is not what is important, because this story is missing a crucial topic. If we want to teach kids to act responsibly on social media we need to do it proactively, not reactively.
Social Media’s Role
Social media is revolutionizing communication. If you follow me online and have read any other passion posts you know my beliefs. If not, I will summarize. We are participating in this revolution but we are still grappling with some of the smallest aspects of it. We are unable to see the bigger picture, that social media is fundamentally changing the way we interact, spread and receive messages, learn and share information. It’s a lot to grasp, but at some point it must sink in.
The Problem with Reactivity
Now, back to Sagehorn. His parents’ actions shows how far behind we all are. They turned to the media in their fight to reinstate their kid in school. Why not, right? This district wronged their kid. They allowed their son to rally a 3,000+ group of teenagers to sign a petition online, throwing Reid into the limelight. Did they really want this negative story of their kid to make headlines and forever be a part of his digital story? If they understood social media and digital footprints, they would have told their kid to be quiet and keep his friends quiet. The better option would have been to work privately with the district to address the punishment. As a parent, the last thing you want is your kid’s named smeared across the media and therefore online, highlighting the story of his suspension. The core issue is that they did not have the social media education and resources needed in making these choices. This is why we need to start educating parents and kids about social media before they are teenagers.
The Real Consequences
Unfortunately, this story will follow Sagehorn for the rest of his life. This could impact his college applications, his future job search and many other aspects of his adult life. Perhaps you think I am over dramatizing this, but it is a serious issue. Notice how the teacher’s name is nowhere to be found in the story? The teacher remained quiet while the system cleared her name. Now her reputation is in tact, while this kid, parents and friends fought his punishment publicly and permanently altered his reputation. A digital footprint of this magnitude cannot be erased.
Punishment as a Lesson
Now, back to the belief that we have to come down hard on this kid to teach others. When has coming down hard on a teenager to send a message worked? In this case, it is possible that the message is lost entirely. Why did this kid get suspended for two months? For saying “actually, yes”? For being sarcastic? No, for perpetuating a rumor that could have been very damaging. Two months of suspension seems severe, considering he didn’t start the rumor. It is unlikely that this will teach kids a lesson, given that it’s punitive and they may miss the point entirely.
The Solution: Proactivity, Not Reactivity
We need to stop reacting to these online horror stories and start being proactive. We need to educate kids before they enter high school and focus more broadly than social media. Our focus should not be about stopping kids from posting negative things online. It should be about empowering kids to use social media to advance their own passions by building a network that may help advance their dreams and goals. To start, we need to help kids identify their passions and dreams and start setting goals to reach those dreams. From there, we need to teach personal branding and the difficulties they will face online as they get older. This is not a topic to start talking to kids about when they are teenagers. We need to begin educating kids when they are 10 years old by showing them positive examples of kids and adults who are doing it right. Teaching young kids a curriculum of empowerment will allow them to start making informed decisions on social media as they become teenagers.
We need to start working towards passion projects and ongoing curriculum at a young age to prepare our kids for the future. The thought that kids understand social media because they grew up with it is false. They may know how to post something, as Sagehorn has proven, but they do not understand the consequences or how to network and build relationships. As a society, it is our job to teach kids and adults how this works. I have a dream to work with a district to setup a pilot program that starts with kids in 5th grade and leads through 12th grade. The focus of this program would be to help kids and parents gain the skills necessary to wield social media tools correctly. The ultimate goal of the pilot program would be to use the data we gather to help spread the program throughout the country so that kids and parents can catch up with the social media revolution.
Now it’s your turn. What do you think? What did you learn from the Reid Sagehorn story? How should we approach teaching kids about social media?
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