Don't Poop In the Pool: Social Media & Our Need For Attention

In the past one month in the United States – if you were to add up all the hours looking at our screens – we have spent a collective 230,000 years online. 230,000 YEARS of time googling, facebooking, snapchatting, and tweeting. The average teenager spends two hours a day online in some way.

Because I get the opportunity to speak and work with young people everyday, I have to ask myself the big question wrapped up in a little word: WHY?

I think the answer is simple, logical, and just a tiny bit scary.

We all want to feel recognized, valued, and loved. We all want attention. It’s a fundamental need in Maslow’s Hierarchy – just after food, water, and safety.  And what’s scary about that? Well, I probably don’t have to tell you as educators that young people (and old people alike) do some strange things when we want attention.

When we are babies, we sometimes yell and scream just to have our parent close to us. As toddlers, we pull peoples hair and draw on walls. I remember being four years old and pooping in a public pool just to get my dad’s attention. He rushed over, pulled me out and apologetically told me we had to go – someone had pooped in the pool and they were evacuating. With a sly grin on my face, I said, “Gross! Let’s get out of here!” Mission successful.

As we move into our teenage years, it gets a little more aggressive. Guys start spraying Axe all over their body in a misguided attempt to smell appealing. Girls start wearing makeup and ridiculous amounts of not-clothing (short shorts and yoga pants have little to do with a desire to be fashionable and much more to do with feeling looked at – feeling worthy of someone’s attention, whatever their intention).

All of us want to feel wanted. Young people feel that craving even more so because, to them, attention is social currency – they wield very little money or political power, so their ability to gather attention is what gives them a place within the all-important social hierarchy of school.

And now there is this platform. Social Media is a stage and our students are the players. The average person on facebook has 338 friends. The average twitter user has 208 followers.  Here is this place where, anytime of the day, they can go to broadcast their thoughts and feelings and have an audience. Almost guaranteed to result in some sort of feedback or response – a place where they can get almost guaranteed attention.

No wonder we spend so much time on it.

But here is the tough (and scary) part: young people today are smart. They have been watching what we show them and they have come to a conclusion. The best way to get attention? Be dramatic.

Think of people like Kim Kardashian and Amanda Bynes and Miley Cyrus. They broadcast their dirty laundry, they have public meltdowns, they twerk onstage wearing nothing more than saran wrap and what to they get? More people watching. More people buying. More attention. 

We are perpetuating a culture of drama. And young people are all over it.

Danah Boyd , a brilliant researcher and thinker, wrote a paper on the true nature of cyberbullying. She claims (and in my hands-on experience with students, I would agree) that our conversation around bullying needs to change. That “bullying” is no longer part of our young people’s vernacular. That, particularly in high school, it is much more about the “drama.”

Drama is an old word being used in a new way for young people to take back control of their world. To say that there is “bullying” happening in their school means that they are forced into one of three positions: the bully, the victim, or the bystander. It has been drilled into their heads that none of those are places they want to be. So, instead, they call it “drama” and they distance themselves from the problem. 

If it’s “just drama,” it’s not really a big deal. If it’s “just drama,” I don’t really feel like a bully. If it’s “just drama,” I can feel okay about not stepping in or standing up for someone because it’s innocuous – it’s just a game.

But the thing is, words hurt whether they are online or face-to-face.  And the things we post about or retweet or like or favorite are more and more becoming a part of who we are – a part of our identity.  Those two hours are a large part of our waking day.

That’s where your leaders need to pause and think about who they are, not only at school, but online too. I can’t tell you how many leaders I work with who put on a great show at school during a training or after an assembly only to tweet about a party they are going to two days later. Or retweet something with a curse word. Or subtweet about someone in a negative way. Or like a status on facebook about skipping school.

We must remind them (and ourselves) that consistency creates our character. When we talk about one thing at school and in leadership, then act a very different way online because it helps us fit in or garners us attention, we lose the trust of the people we are trying to lead. 

To lead is to build relationships with the students at your school – relationships built on trust and authenticity. We must remind ourselves to use social media to create positive drama and build a following not based on a selfish need for attention, but a selfless desire to be authentic leaders – people of character and influence.

Let’s use those 230,000 years of time each month to promote goodness. Let’s use this amazing stage to bring attention not to ourselves, but to broadcast love, kindness, and community.

It’s not “just drama” – it’s real people being hurt and it’s your identity and influence at stake. For goodness sake, let’s stop pooping in the pool and start posting in a way that honors peoples’ feelings and represents who we want to be.