Editorial: Teens and social media

Invisible to parents and teachers, cruelty, meanness and explicit online postings have become a way of life for teenagers

If you are the parent of a middle or high school student, chances are your child is either engaged in, or witness to, online behavior that you would find distressing, if not shocking.

But for many teens, this behavior has become just another challenge of adolescence, and another aspect of their lives that parents either don't know about or feel ill-equipped in how to respond.

The existence of a generational divide between what adults and teens believe is acceptable communication on social media today is one of the findings of an in-depth look at how teens treat each other published last week by the Weekly.

The package of stories reveals the unprecedented struggles facing today's teens as they find their way in the unsupervised world of social media. Teens related stories about the silent suffering many endure when peers they consider friends anonymously post crude, sexually explicit and often completely false comments designed to hurt their feelings and gain social advantage at their expense.

For some, especially those at the top of the social order, it is just another tricky social challenge to navigate. But for those who are more vulnerable, being the subject of online bullying, teasing or gossip can be devastating and lead to depression, alienation and suicide ideation.

It is an environment significantly different and more mean-spirited than faced by teens just a few years ago, and is alarming educators, psychologists and law enforcement as well as parents.

In affluent, highly educated communities like Palo Alto, the dangers may be greater because many teens are very skilled at being polite and engaging with adults when they need to, yet behave very differently on social media when dealing with their classmates away from adult eyes.

As one Paly senior said, "Teens know how to put their best foot forward in front of an adult, especially at school."

That skill, which leads many parents and teachers to a false sense of trust about their teen's behavior, leaves many teens free to let loose, especially in tech-savvy Palo Alto, where kids at an ever younger age are way ahead of their parents' knowledge and understanding of online social media platforms. Often that includes making anonymous online postings, or posts to Facebook pages that carefully avoid identities but that convey a derogatory message or threat to those who recognize they are the intended audience.

When shown some examples of online postings by Paly students, former principal Phil Winston said "Not one of these young people would say anything like that in person. There's such power in not being able to see the person you are hurting."

Jim Steyer, founder of Common Sense Media and Children Now, wrote "We're witnessing the rise of new forms of damaging, destructive interpersonal behavior, like cyberbullying, that are facilitated by digital platforms. It's a lot easier to say or do something truly hurtful to someone else, without considering the consequences, when it requires only a few keystrokes on a computer or cell phone."

Gunn High School Assistant Principal Trinity Klein observed that social media has changed the way students relate to one another. One teen girl told the Weekly she intentionally avoided developing close relationships out of fear that a friend might turn on her and reveal personal information on social media.

Exacerbating the problem is that the social norm for kids who are the victims of online teasing or gossip is not to tell anyone, especially parents, act unaffected and just hope it will pass quickly. Some teens are more resilient than others, and those who are not often have nowhere to turn for support and comfort, leading to isolation and depression.

As the Weekly's stories show, parents, kids and school officials are all struggling to sort out this new environment. With the teens themselves saying that anti-bullying and cyber-education programs are ineffective and not taken seriously, experts believe the focus needs to be on reaching kids when they are younger, before age 12, when they are typically opening Facebook accounts and beginning to use social media. The opportunity to influence social norms of teens closes, they say, during middle school, making the late elementary school years the prime time for parents and teachers to explore these issues with their children.

Lots of efforts are underway in the schools, beginning in second grade, and a small Palo Alto start-up, My Digital Tat2, is currently working with Palo Alto fifth graders and parents on raising awareness about kindness and respect online.

As with so many other things teens are drawn toward that involve potential harm, parents need to walk a fine line between rule-making and understanding the allure. As some of the teens themselves acknowledged, they know when they are crossing the line with their online behavior. The challenge is to make it socially more powerful to stand up and object to such behavior than to engage in it.

Editor's Note: You can access the Weekly's August 16 cover package on social media, entitled "Power to Hurt: How Social Media Impacts Our Kids" here.

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Like this comment
Posted by JA3+
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 23, 2013 at 10:23 am

On a related note, would it be wise for the Weekly and its sister papers to switch to non-anonymous online postings? For example, use Facebook-linked accounts to identify the posters?

Although I post anonymously at the Weekly's site, I think there's a significant benefit to clear identification of the author of all online posts.

To my eye, the problems at -- a site in the news quite a bit of late, particularly in the UK -- are primarily related to its use of anonymous posting.

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Posted by Ellen Smith
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 23, 2013 at 10:48 am

I would like to see a discussion of JA+3's suggestion that the Weekly not accept anonymous posts. I have pretty much stopped reading the comments that follow articles because they are so often just rants and sometimes become rude and worse. If people had to reveal their identity, would it increase civility and possibly lead to more thoughtful responses? I know there are times when being able to comment anonymously is a necessary protection, but in most cases people should take responsibility for what they say.

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Posted by stunned
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 23, 2013 at 11:15 am

I use many social media tools to stay current: Facebook, whisper, Digisocial, Vine, Twitter, Instagram, Path, LinkedIn, Google+, ....

But I was stunned by what I've seen on

You'll see Palo Alto teens using their real identities with real photos, publicly sharing their private feelings about various people at school. They answer questions like:

- Who are the hot guys at Jordan and JLS?
- How would you rate the following guys at school (1-10)? Ethan, Alex, Max, ...
- Who do you want to hu (hook up) with?
- Do you think xyz is a total bitch?

Hey, if you want to privately text with your friends about this stuff or even allow friends of friends to see it on Facebook, I totally understand.
But to have all this info public using your real identity is insane (for your and others' reputations).

2 people like this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Aug 23, 2013 at 11:27 am

How else does one become a celebrity? Other paths may require genuine effort.

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Posted by Tony
a resident of another community
on Aug 23, 2013 at 11:39 am

It's fairly obvious that the parents and teachers know nothing about Internet culture so they overreact because they don't understand it.

Please old people, stop ruining the internet for your kids.... Your kids need to toughen up and realize that people on the Internet are not nice and as soon as they turn 18 this is how the real world works. I'm so tired of seeing clueless parents and educators talk about how big of an issue this is while actually knowing nothing about the Internet.

Teach your kids these 3 rules. 1. Don't feed the trolls. 2. Don't put any naked pictures of yourself online. 3. It's the internet, who cares?

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Posted by anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 23, 2013 at 12:01 pm

I don't know anything much about except that the SoCal girl who was recently kidnapped took to it after her father had politely requested privacy for the family. The father seemed well-spoken and thoughtful. News reports indicated some surprise that the girl was so over-sharing at this early period of her recovery. I wonder if she ever thanked the hundreds of law enforcement, etc., who worked so hard to find and recover her safely?
The girl seems to be loving her 5 min. of "fame," and has now been on The Today Show. I wonder if a paid appearance?
It seems vulgar and an outgrowth of so-called "reality" tv shows, which are appalling and ridiculous, scripted conflict, oversharing, pseudo-drama. 3 minutes is about enough for me. We are reaching the lowest of the low, though the Kardashians rake in millions, but it has to move on to something else (what I fear...). News media releases nonsensical "news" about so-called "stars" of a pawn show or "Storage Wars.."
I guess this stuff used to be on (fictional) daytime soap operas, which were stupid but harmless, but now we are dealing with real people, many of whom will do anything to be a "star" and what's more, younger and younger ones.
Back to social media, I see nothing "funny" about "rating" the girls at a school on "hotness" or some such. It speaks to aimlessness, rudeness, stupidity, not "being social" or young. I wouldn't encourage it. I know some make money. That's the bottom line of those who offer these internet "services."

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Posted by JA3+
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 23, 2013 at 12:26 pm

"I don't know anything much about ..."

As a start, here's a recent article on posted to the Telegraph's UK web site:
Web Link

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Posted by JA3+
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 23, 2013 at 12:33 pm

"If people had to reveal their identity, would it increase civility and possibly lead to more thoughtful responses?"

Perhaps it's not a fully-representative case, but a look at the postings at both before and after the recent posting changes from anonymous to verified is instructive, I think. The volume is down -- way down -- but the civility is noticeably improved.

At the Weekly, my best guess: although the postings would drop, readers will stay longer and read more articles and forum posts. Perhaps a trial run would be wise?

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Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Aug 23, 2013 at 1:52 pm

We already know what happens here when a thread gets hot and then requires logging-in to post a comment. Discussion grinds to halt. What is an "identity" anyway? Does identity exist outside of social context? Isn't that what the original article is about? Teens struggling to find their identities? Identifying with others among their peers? Differentiating themselves? Presenting different faces to different groups? Don't we all act differently among family or among co-workers or among the old college gang? Who doesn't feel pressure to fit in or get along? Cliques existed long before the internet. Is the process of maturity just realizing that none of this matters? Or realizing that more calculation and pretense of civility are required to move up the pecking order to afford a decent standard of living. I could post this as a random resident, but I'll use my real on-line name.

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Posted by Marc Vincenti
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 25, 2013 at 1:33 pm

Dear Readers,

In the wake of the Weekly’s superb coverage of social media and how it can harm teenagers, but before asking why we, the grown-ups of Palo Alto, allow this harm in our schools, let’s tote up some things forbidden on campus—at Gunn, for example—because they disrupt, distract, or endanger.

If you’re a teenager at Gunn, you can’t bring your fireworks or water-balloons onto campus. You’re forbidden by the student handbook to bring laser-pointers or matches or noise-makers onto campus, because the “presence of inappropriate objects can create a disruption.”

Nix on the skateboards or bikes, when classes are in session. You can’t wear clothing that’s too revealing (e.g., bellybuttons banned), because “appearance and dress…shall not interfere with teaching and learning.”

Hazing is out. So are t-shirts with profanity on them, or drug insignia. Forbidden are streaking and displays of “excessive affection.” Unregistered visitors qualify as trespassers; don’t go barefoot; and forget about loitering in a restroom.

“But by all means,” we are in effect saying to kids, “make use of your electronic device at school—where during passing-periods, and brunch, and lunch, and prep periods, and when you’ve skipped out of class to use the restroom and not loiter, you can check social media to send and receive gossip, taunts, lewd comments, subtle harassment, anonymous bullying, and naked photos.”

“It's okay,” we're suggesting to our young people, “to have to suffer the resulting feelings—which won't ever make it hard for you to flourish in class.”

Marc Vincenti

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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 25, 2013 at 1:45 pm

To those who ask for posters here to post under their real names I would like to make the following comments.

My remaining anonymous here is to protect my identity and those of my children. It also protects my property, my car, my time and my dignity.

I have commented on Facebook under my real name with my real identity on issues on various media sites - local tv stations, etc. I am shocked what people say using their supposed real identities so to say that registration and real names keep discussions civil, then that is false, if what happens there is a reflection of true identity.

Secondly on this same issue, when I have used my real name on Facebook, I get hate comments put on all my profile pictures and anything else that can be "hacked". I keep my real name on Facebook but no links to phone numbers, email or street address, because of security issues. I am always polite and respectful, but so many others are not. Likewise, if I were to use my real name here, I feel it would be so much easier for someone who wanted to find me or my family. That would be a great concern to me.

Unfortunately although I stand by what I say, I am definitely afraid of those who disagree with me wanting to physically find me and abuse me in some way. I am polite and my opinions are respectful. However, many of the people who read them are not polite, not respectful and I have no idea how aggressive they may be.

Therefore I choose to remain anonymous and respect all others who also choose to do so.

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Posted by JA3+
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 26, 2013 at 4:43 pm

"Therefore I choose to remain anonymous and respect all others who also choose to do so."

Understood; when the issue, though, is teen-use of social media to bully other teens and such use is not restrained -- in particular, where the author of mean-spirited or false rumors and the like is not obligated to truthfully disclose the author's identity -- then I respectfully suggest anonymity benefits no one and may, in the alternate, cause much harm.

I respect the desire for anonymity; where the posts are of a personal nature, though, wouldn't it best to either require author verification or ban such posts in full? For a site like, wouldn't it be wise to require the site to do more than it's done to date?

Like this comment
Posted by Annie
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 29, 2013 at 10:35 pm


You are right. People dont have the imagination to understand how harmful this is.

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Posted by s
a resident of Community Center
on Aug 29, 2013 at 10:38 pm

I think the we should ONLY EVER use anonymous posts.

Think about it. IF our kids were banned from using facebook and we took away their smart phones then there would be no cyberbullying to speak of!

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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