How about not defaulting to the defaults (we have on social media)?

Ok, full disclosure: I know my antennae are up when I read the news. I’ve been questioning reflexively negative pronouncements about social media for years. But the reason is all the fear about the impact of social media on our children, not to mention the human race, that has been swirling in the air for a decade now. Negativity has become our default, and I don’t think that’s good for us, our parenting or our children.

Take for example two articles I happened to pick up and read one after the other in yesterday’s New York Times. In the first article, Bob Mould, a guy whose whole career is about being creative, in one breath says the Internet has “given everybody a way to express themselves,” then defaults to: “But sometimes I fear that people don’t actually get together physically.” That’s a default from the 1990s, when people were mythologically “surfing the Web” anonymously in dark rooms lit by single screens and when The New Yorker published a cartoon in which a dog at a PC keyboard was saying to a canine companion, “On the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog.”

The very next article I read was actually about social media, specifically Tinder, the dating app. It was refreshingly neutral overall, pointing out the non-default observation that, “while some use [it] to find one-night stands, others have found spouses.” Yay! We find a journalist reporting that social media use is actually very individual — a reflection of the user and his/her life right then. Reporter Brooke Lea Foster led with a married couple who met on Tinder:

“Yes, they swiped right and met the one … even though Tinder, the ubiquitous mobile-dating app, has been written off by some observers as nothing more than a vehicle to promote quick and easy hookups,” she wrote, acknowledging what one always hears about the app, even though more and more marriages featured in the Sunday Times’s Vows section got their start on Tinder. “There’s no lengthy profile. On Tinder, users see nothing but a photo, a short tagline, someone’s profession and perhaps an alma mater.”

Then the obligatory default: “You’re pretty much judging someone on their picture alone.”

Then again, maybe you’re not. It’s a lot like people’s profiles on Twitter and in other social media. They’re spare. There’s a photo, a couple lines of bio, a home town and a link to a Web site for more. That’s all you need in order to know whether you want to follow someone or learn more. About the same goes for Tinder. I guess someone could spend all his or her time looking at photos, but that’s not the point of the app. The point is to look at those snippets, both image and text, to see if it’d be worth meeting in person, for whatever reason. It’s totally individual, situational and contextual, like offline life — and parenting, for that matter, right?

So how about a little basic media literacy? Can we default to thinking as critically about our social media defaults as we do about social media? There will be some upsides to that: more social literacy as well as media literacy, less reflexive fear, more open-heartedness and less judgment. If we model that kind of literacy for our children, we’ll have more credibility when we work with them on applying their critical thinking to using social media. And that critical thinking — consciously choosing what outcomes they want and who they want to be in social media, as well as in person — will increase their safety and wellbeing in these apps and services.

This piece was originally posted in Anne Collier’s blog at NetFamilyNews.org.

Youth advocate; blogger, NetFamilyNews.org; founder, The Net Safety Collaborative

Youth advocate; blogger, NetFamilyNews.org; founder, The Net Safety Collaborative