The Power of Understanding

Five months later, I’m still processing some lessons from the explosion of the Snapchat post. In a week, nearly 4 million people read something I wrote, it was exciting and terrifying at the same time.

It was a confusing dream come true for a blogger. It was awesome. Who doesn’t want a few million people reading something they’ve written? It was confusing because it wasn’t– and still isn’t– real clear to me why it happened.

That said… Here are some things I learned…

  • I’d sell a lot more books if I scared the hell out of people. One reason that blog post took off was that it was direct, it told the truth, and it was unashamed in forfeiting neutrality on the issue.
  • I’d get booked at a whole lot more places if I shamed teenagers. Bottom line, if my talk was about all the bad things about social media and all the ways you can get into trouble, I’d be way more popular.
  • Adults and teenagers typically want two completely different things from me. Adults want me to warn teenagers. Teenagers want to know how things work.

And, if I were an amoral content provider seeking to fill-up my calendar, I’d just give adults what they want. I’d come into a school or church and spend time sharing stories of people who have been kidnapped or raped… sprinkling in tales of teenagers who have sexted themselves onto their state’s sex registry. Yes, those things happen. And yes, there’s some value in communicating those stories. (Most teenagers are already aware of them, they aren’t as news averse as many adults tend to think.)

But I can’t be that presenter because that’s not me. Yes, I could do that. But no, that’s not me.

And it’s not me for three  specific reasons. 

  1. I think it’s exploiting/fear-mongering to tell an uncommon story as if it’s common. Whereas millions and millions of teenagers use social media in completely benign ways, a very tiny percentage of teenagers are exploited, bullied, or commit crimes.
  2. Fear is a short-term motivator. You’ll never scare someone into changing their behavior long-term. Ultimately, modifying behavior comes with a combination of education and internalization.
  3. This isn’t my experience with social media, at all. I’m not going to say that all of my experiences online are amazing. But to walk in and try to convince someone that something is dangerous when that’s not been my experience is a false construction.

That’s why I talk about understanding. Teenagers want to and need to know how stuff works. Even if it isn’t popular with adults and even if it means I don’t get booked on TV shows or write exposes covered in major news outlets. I don’t think scaring teenagers really helps them. But I do think creating language of understanding does. 

p.s. The SNL Scared Straight skits are some of the funniest stuff ever.

By Adam McLane

Kristen and Adam live in the San Diego neighborhood of Rolando with their three children.

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