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Sixteen-year-old student Patrick Mott while using social media at his home in Pickering, Ont., Oct. 2 2013. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
Sixteen-year-old student Patrick Mott while using social media at his home in Pickering, Ont., Oct. 2 2013. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

There are smarter ways teens should use social media, this 16-year-old expert says. Here’s how Add to ...

‘Who are you tweeting now?” is a query often posed to me while my fingers rapidly navigate the illuminated screen of my iPhone. As a 16-year-old from Pickering, Ont., my response – that I’m actually learning and being productive – surprises most people.

Teenagers lust for social streams, such as Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest, to keep us engaged and entertained. Whether it be Miley Cyrus’s twerking tribulations, our friend’s trip to Greece or the prorogation of Parliament, our inquiring minds crave the content that we feel is important.

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Yet, so often we misuse the power of social media. We are presented with such potent tools, but many of us have no idea how to use them responsibly. Perhaps this is because Twitter tips are not covered in school curriculums across most of the country. They ought to be. Parents and educators must begin teaching social-media literacy to teens on a regular basis.

My social-network timelines are a little different from those of many of my peers. Of course, I follow my friends, but I also follow an abundance of journalists, politicians and people that my age group generally wouldn’t follow, such as Twitter exec Kirstine Stewart and public relations maven Amanda Alvaro. I’m interested in learning, gaining knowledge on topics that interest me and broadening my horizons.

However, not all teens use their social streams this way. Scattered in my timeline are posts that make me absolutely cringe. Posts filled with profanity, provocative photos and general obscenity. Posts that, like anything on the Internet, are there forever. Social media, especially for teens, can be an activity that reaps little reward. While one may believe the provocative photo posted on Instagram is artsy today, in a few years it may be a regret. For teens especially, entering an already competitive work force is hard enough; coupled with an inappropriate online presence, finding meaningful employment can be even more difficult.

It doesn’t have to be this way. If used positively, social media can offer many benefits personally, socially and even professionally. It allows me to participate in conversations with a wide variety of leaders that I wouldn’t have access to otherwise. Last June, in less than 140 characters, I asked entrepreneur and author Arlene Dickinson if I could have lunch with her; because of Twitter, she agreed. Without Twitter, I wouldn’t have spoken at Social Media Week Toronto, appeared on Breakfast Television in Vancouver or set up a meeting with the vice-president and fashion editor of Holt Renfrew. And I definitely wouldn’t be writing this article.

There is often a misconception that social media will strip youth of articulate speech and mature vocabulary. However, I cannot stress enough how it has contributed to my literacy skills. On the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test, a section required me to synthesize information in short, concise sentences. My strategy was simple: Pretend I was tweeting.

Everyone uses social media in his or her own way, and only by trial and error will teens learn how they can use it effectively – perhaps as a creative outlet or maybe to kick-start their careers. For educators, incorporating blogging, tweeting and social networking into school assignments is a fascinating approach to instill social-media literacy.

I was left to my own devices to crack the code of efficacious social-media use. Fortunately enough, I have a self-starting, type-A personality and my social streams have a beneficial impact on my life. All it would take is a little guidance and a lot of practice for other teens to have a similarly positive experience.

 

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