Middle School Counselor Katie Sentilles Published by Daily Memphian, Focusing on Positive Social Media Use

Sentilles wrote a guest column entitled “Focus on the good of social media” that was published by the Daily Memphian, emphasizing a new program Hutchison is using to teach students how to use social media in positive ways.
The following column was published on February 10 on the Daily Memphian’s website.

Teens spend 7.5 hours a day on social media, according to Common Sense Media. Social media is how teens connect and socialize. Is that a bad thing? Negative news reports say yes; however, research shows that when managed appropriately teens can use social media in positive and well-balanced ways.

As a middle school counselor at Hutchison School, I encourage parents to focus on the do’s, rather than the don’ts of social media, take a look at their own screen time activity, and stay off of their teen’s social media roller coaster.

In my 17 years at Hutchison, I have watched technology change the different ways social issues play out. Everything happens faster and more easily with social media.

While my generation passed notes and had plans to meet at a certain place and time, this generation texts, snaps and shares their locations. Teachers still confiscate the occasional note, but I am more likely to find out about unkind behavior through screenshots than I am through a paper trail.

Recently, Hutchison started using an online program that focuses entirely on life skills for today that are relevant, engaging and gamified. #WinAtSocial is an innovative curriculum from The Social Institute that equips students to make high character decisions based on seven standards set forth by the program.

By being positive and using devices to teach how to use social media for good, we are opening the door to productive and healthy discussions about appropriate tech use that encourages inclusivity and aligns with each individual’s family values.

And speaking of family, girls tell me their parents often miss what they are saying because they are busy checking their own devices, yet they get so angry at the girls if they check their devices during a conversation or during a meal. Teens view their social interactions as the most important thing in their lives, as important as a parent’s job.

Those social interactions are fraught with intense emotions that go along with adolescent development. I have long compared middle school girls' experiences to a roller coaster.

There are up times and in the blink of an eye, the mood shifts with no notable transition event. Teen girls experience numerous, often challenging, emotions throughout the day. I encourage parents not to get on the roller coaster with their daughters, but to stay grounded and be her safe landing space.

Technology has increased social interactions exponentially; the new roller coaster has faster speeds and higher drops. One minute you’re up with likes, and positive comments, the next minute you perceive your reputation is on the brink of ruin. I recommend parents stay off this roller coaster, as well.

Despite the fact that my students have unlimited connections at their fingertips, I spend a lot of my day making sure they feel connected. We know girls learn best and are more likely to thrive academically if they have a strong sense of belonging and the skills to make meaningful connections with peers and adults.

I’m fortunate to work with an integrated team of three full-time counselors and a director of student inclusion and belonging dedicated to helping girls live in community, develop healthy relationships, and make responsible decisions. All qualities that we think are inextricably linked to success in today’s world. 

Social media can often feel like the path to a teen’s social downfall. However, when teens learn to deal positively with the challenges of social media, they build emotional awareness and intelligence and become more resilient. For generations, parents of teenagers have had to step out of their comfort zones to grapple with social norms. It’s healthy to step out of one’s comfort zone. Buckle up and get ready for the ride. Just avoid the emotional roller coaster.

Katie Sentilles, MSW, MPH, MA, LCSW, is the Middle School Counselor at Hutchison, a private, independent school for girls ages 2-years-old through 12th grade.

You can view the online version of the guest column here.

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