Why do social media 'fails' by young athletes keep happening?

USA TODAY High School Sports has a weekly column on the college recruiting process. Here, you’ll find practical tips and real-world advice on becoming a better recruit to maximize your opportunities to play at the college level. Joe Leccesi is a former college-athlete and coach at the NAIA level, where he earned an NAIA National Championship. Joe is just one of many former college and professional players, college coaches, and parents who are part of the Next College Student Athlete team. Their knowledge, experience, and dedication along with NCSA’s history of digital innovation, and long-standing relationship with the college coaching community have made NCSA the largest and most successful athletic recruiting network in the country.

Josh Allen was poised to be the top draft pick in last week’s NFL Draft.  But on the day of the Draft, racially-insensitive tweets he posted when he was in high school were leaked. He was picked seventh by the Buffalo Bills. “I’m not the type of person I was at 14 and 15 that I tweeted so recklessly,” he apologized on ESPN. “I don’t want that to be the impression of who I am because that is not me. I apologize for what I did.”

Generation Z is often characterized as being social media-savvy. After all, they have not lived one day without the internet. So why do they continue to post content on social media that can come back to haunt them? The stakes are especially high for student-athletes who may be called out for tweets, photos or posts that are inappropriate. Consider this tweet from last January posted by Arkansas Razorbacks coach Justin Stepp: “Came across an awful Twitter account today. Shame the kid was a really good player…On to the next one…get a clue!”

Whenever this occurs, the story invariably makes news; yet another teachable moment. So why does it keep happening? Why would student-athletes—why would anyone? —post content that would be a red flag for college coaches, administrators, recruiters or employers?

Learning the hard way

We’ve written about this topic before, but we wanted to grapple further with the “why.” “Teens like to believe they are immune to bad things happening to them,” offers Raychelle C. Lohmann,  a Licensed Professional Counselor and Author who blogs about teen issues for Psychology Today. “They hold the ever-popular belief that ‘I won’t get caught’ or ‘What happened to that person would never happen to me.’ Unfortunately, they must learn these lessons the hard way.”

A second reason, she says, is that a lot of young people act on a whim without thinking things through. “Caught up in the moment, they impulsively snap that photo or fire off a tweet,” she states. “They keep on doing it without processing the effect that it may have on their lives and the lives of others.”

This jibes with research that finds the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for problem-solving, impulse control and decision-making, isn’t fully developed until one’s mid-twenties. “Although we expect our teens to know better, the fact is there are some physiological reasons teens act impulsively and believe they are invincible,” Lohmann says.

Could vs. Should

There is a classic line in Jurassic Park, in which Jeff Goldblum’s character states that scientists “were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” That applies just as much to posting on social media as it does to cloning dinosaurs. It’s partly a generational thing, suggests Andrea Gribble, owner of #SocialSchool4EDU, a Minnesota-based company that works with schools to develop and manage their social media strategy. “Young people are documenting their entire lives on social media,” she observes. “They’ve grown up with it and so they’ve developed the attitude, ‘If it’s not on social media, it didn’t happen.’ In many cases, they think it’s a conversation just between themselves and their friends. They don’t think it will be taken out of context or misconstrued. They can’t comprehend the far-reaching consequences.”

Kevin DeShazo agrees. He’s the founder of Fieldhouse Media, which works with schools to educate and empower students to use social media purposefully and positively. “(Students may not appreciate) they’re not just talking to their friends on social media,” he explains. “There are coaches, employers, the media, college recruiters; their audience is far bigger than they realize.”

And the internet is forever. On the night Villanova Wildcats guard Donte DiVincenzo scored a career-high 31 points to help lead his team to its second national title in three years, he had to answer questions from the press about a racially insensitive tweet sent from his Twitter account when he was 14. He has since deleted his Twitter account.

After all of the highly publicized social media horror stories, one would think the message would be received. But no; every week, it seems, there is another indiscriminate post followed by public shaming. And it’s not just young people, of course. Adults can be the worst offenders. Just last week, a former Texas education official tweeted an insensitive comment to a biracial teen who posted a celebratory tweet after being accepted to Harvard. “Were you accepted on merit or quota?” the official asked. As you can imagine that did not go well for him and he was compelled to apologize (“Shame hangs heavy on my heart”).

“How on earth are we supposed to teach our youth to behave online when many adults do not?” asks Lohmann.

Social media with a purpose

But “do as I say, not as I do,” is not an effective teaching model, DeShazo has found. “Social media training has historically been, ‘Don’t tweet this, don’t post that, don’t screw up, don’t, don’t, don’t, it’s going to ruin your life,’” he states. “This is not education. That’s just warnings.”

And you can’t count on young people being scared straight by news accounts of social media scandals. “Kids don’t get their news from the same news outlets adults do,” DeShazo notes. It is more productive, he says, for them to consider what they want from their social media interactions. “Most people don’t have a purpose with why they’re on social media,” he explains. “They’re just on it because their friends are. They need to realize social media is a powerful tool. What do you actually want to get from it? What is your goal? What actions will help you to achieve that goal?  Let’s think about what it means to use it well; to best represent yourself and your school.”

This has become a priority for Augie Fontanetta, athletic director at New Trier High School, one of Illinois’ elite schools and athletic programs. “It’s about how we want our program portrayed (to the public) and social media is part of that,” he says. “At the beginning of each season, we have a meeting with coaches, staff, and parents to address the proper use of social media. We have high expectations of our athletes. It is important they know they are ambassadors for the high school and the athletic department.”

With each new generation increasingly dependent on social media, this issue of deliberate and responsible social media use needs constant reinforcement.  “Teens need to learn how to effectively communicate and interact online,” Lohmann concludes. “This education needs to come from parents, schools and the community. Youth can learn to self-monitor behavior, work through complex online scenarios, and weigh their options by utilizing good decision-making skills. Sharpening these skills can help youth learn to make better decisions when it comes to self-regulation and managing online behavior.”

“Social media plays such a massive role in all our lives,” De Shazo emphasizes. “You can’t have this discussion enough.”

Read more: What social media platforms are most popular with student-athletes?

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