In the second week of classes, I have been thinking about relationships as I watch the shifting social landscape of Proctor that teeters, dissolves, and rebuilds. Somewhere on campus, life-long friendships are just beginning, somewhere a social group evolves with new players coming in and old ones exiting. Most of the time this process is healthy, some of the time it is not. It’s a significant part of the adolescent landscape.
When I was a kid in rural Pennsylvania, I’d walk half a mile down a dirt road, pass two houses, cross a couple of creeks, and arrive at the old stone farmhouse we called home. The only trouble I could get into, the only worry I could provoke in my parents was when I veered off to explore one of the two streams I crossed. Suckers, crayfish, frogs, snakes and the allure of a winding waterway through woods were a siren song to my best friend and me at the time. Many days I yielded to the temptation to explore, many days I caused my parents worry, but those shared experiences cemented one of the best friendships of my life.
So often I see the joyful side of social explorations that comes with shared experiences in classes, on teams, in dorms, or at the dining hall. Some of the friendships are noisy, raucous, and filled with laughter. Others tend toward the quiet. But it is not a walk down a country road anymore, not with the social neighborhoods created by social networks. Navigating today’s landscapes can be exhilarating, but we also acknowledge that the journey can be challenging and one of daunting complexity.
It’s challenging enough for students to move through the real, face-to-face communities. What has enormously complicated this landscape for teenagers, and for educators and parents, are the social networks that are established on-line. They spring up overnight: prefab, enticing, inviting, and far from perfect.
The one that Proctor has contended with already this year, the one that has left many schools reeling, is Yik-Yak, which Fox News commentator Dr. Keith Ablow has labeled the most dangerous app he’s ever seen. “Anyone using Yik-Yak can turn a school into a virtual chat room where everyone can post his or her comments, anonymously. Untruthful, mean, character-assassinating short messages are seen by all users in a specific geographic area.”
It arrived on campus in our first week, and lived up to that billing. Yik-Yak has come up in faculty meetings, and a week ago Wednesday I addressed the community. A “geo-fence” has been thrown up around Proctor so that the site can’t be accessed on-line at Proctor. A much more effective fence was thrown up by our student leaders’ messaging about the kind of community we aspire to be. But I know, and you know, that there are ways to subvert the fence. We know that another app or site will take its place and social media can’t simply be shooed away.
The antidote to the downside of social media is kindness. It’s the personal touch; it’s the wise ones who come into our lives to offer perspective and grace. Thankfully, I see that modeled in abundance within the Proctor community, modeled by both by students and adults. Adolescence will never be like my walk down a Pennsylvania dirt road, not for the vast majority of adolescents, but that doesn't mean it has to be a lonely, frightened journey through the landscape of social media.