September 12, 2017 —

Teens today live and breathe for their cyber-life. It can even be more important to them than their offline activities.

From generating “likes” to acquiring cyber-friends, youth today will build their self-worth on a digital barometer that can be extremely unhealthy as much of it is unrealistic.

One thing is certain: It is tragic and disturbing to see so many headlines of young people falling victim to cyberbullying these days. The virtual playground where teens spend a majority of their time can also be the very place that can wreak havoc on them emotionally. 

Cyberbullying, whether it's on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter or other platforms, can sting with pain. It's important to realize that it's not about the platform, it's about educating our teens to use social media with respect and responsibility. It’s not only important for their health and happiness today, but with social media growing every day, it’s important for their future.

As more colleges and employers review the online presence of applicants to judge the character of potential candidates, teens’ futures rely heavily on their digital footprint. Teens need to build their social authority online by showcasing their best qualities in how they treat others and represent their communities. By creating a “virtual resume”, they are letting colleges and employers know they are involved in making a difference for themselves as well as for others. They can be trusted to represent their college or organization in a positive way.

Social authority means taking control of your online reputation, owning it and being accountable for your cyber-space as well as being a role model for those around you. 

You can help your teen build their social authority with the 3-E's:

Engagement: Remind your teen that conversation is all about give and take. Encourage them to actively engage in two-way dialogues and be respectful of those with differing opinions. 

Education: Encourage your teen to share their expertise and talk about what they know. Whether it's a skill or a hobby, or simply recommending a movie or a book, inspire them to be someone who people can trust when it comes to their specific area of interest. This helps build social authority.

Excitement: People that know your teen offline typically know what they are passionate about. Encourage your teen to share that excitement with others online as well. Be sure to also remind them that, as in real life, it's not always going to be a bright day. However, one of the best parts about technology is that you can always turn it off. There's nothing worse than reading threads of posts from perpetual “Debbie Downers.” That said, there's also nothing wrong with surrounding yourself with some cyber-love if you need a lift while experiencing a hardship. It’s just important to keep it in check. As with many things in life, it’s all about finding a healthy balance.

When your teen starts to realize they are building their social authority around their online reputation, they can become confident in their ability to make better choices (both online and offline). And if they witness cyberbullying, they will likely be strong enough to be an upstander and report it. It's similar to making offline choices, such as choosing to refrain from substance abuse. If your teen feels good about themselves, they won't be reaching for other means, such as drugs or alcohol, to validate who they are. 

Social media is not about generating cyber-friends or the highest quantity of “likes.” It's about building a strong social network of quality people and bonds with others who are also looking to build their social authority for a bright future; people looking to make their community and the world a better place. It starts with us. 

Do you have any additional tips for helping teens establish social authority? Feel free to share them in the comments below!

Sue Scheff is the author of the upcoming book, Shame Nation: The Global Epidemic of Online Hate.