Over the past six weeks, I have had the pleasure of speaking to almost 400 teenagers about issues surrounding social media. We talked about cyberbullying, privacy and freedom of speech on social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, SnapChat, Instagram, etc. The students ranged from 8th graders through 12th grade. It’s fascinating to talk to our kids about these subjects, at least for me. I am always learning something from them and always impressed by how smart and in tuned they are with what’s going on. Today I want to focus on my conversations with our teenagers regarding freedom of speech on Facebook. When I refer to Facebook, I am referring to any social media platform.

Free speech is a funny thing on Facebook. I tell the students that my intent is never to discourage them from speaking their mind about things but I ask them if maybe, just maybe, their views on certain subjects might change from the time they are in high school to when they are 5, 10, 15, even 20 years older. They all agree that yes, their opinions will probably change.

We discuss the fact that free speech has nothing to do with cyberbullying and that there is no justification at any time for attacking another person on Facebook. Free speech doesn’t mean that you have the right to say whatever you feel like when it means you are intentionally hurting someone else. I hope I get this point across to them because it is far too easy to “attack” when you are sitting behind a computer. You might even use a false identity on Facebook by using someone else’s identity to set up a profile. Our teenagers all agree that there are false profiles on Facebook that people are using to hide behind and cyberbully others. I am promoting Flocks.com to our schools to help combat this issue.

Once we get through the cyberbully and free speech discussion, I talk to them about radical views. While I agree that in America we have the right to express our opinion and Facebook is certainly a soap box we can pontificate from, I caution them that what goes on Facebook stays on Facebook. Being overly outspoken about certain political or social issues is a double edged sword. I want our young people to express themselves and feel confident enough to get out there and speak for the changes they believe are right. On the other hand, that Post or Comment may come back to haunt them later on. California has taken a leap forward by enacting a law allowing teenagers to clean up their social media sites such as Facebook before they regret such posts as an adult. The law goes into effect after the first of the year. This is an interesting concept but it’s not foolproof when it comes to someone else posting an embarrassing photo or tagging you in a radical comment.

I have cautioned teenagers I know about being too political, too sexual and too critical of others such as their professors on Facebook. I am hoping that parents, teachers and school administrators spend more time talking to teenagers about these issues. The challenge is that many parents, teachers and school administrators need to be educated as well.

I love social media. It’s an amazing tool to allow each and every one of us to reach out and share, learn and connect with those we know and those we might never have encountered. It can help raise the consciousness of individuals to make positive changes on our planet. Free Speech is an American right and privilege – I just want our young people to understand the permanence of what they say. Unfortunately so many adults do not.

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