Under the Influence: How Social Media Has Re-Shaped Our Social Circles

Spoiler alert: This post is about our need to address the inherent shortcomings — but strong influence — of social media on our kids.

But first, a question: Who are your friends?

A simple question with a not-so-simple answer, when you think about it. Bear with me here.

You see, in my view, we all have different kinds of relationships, different kinds of friends. One way to illustrate the concept is to visualize a circle containing three rings.

The innermost ring, by far the smallest, represents our most intimate “inner-circle” friends. If you’re married, it might be your spouse. It might be other family members or relatives. It might be a brother or sister, or a very close friend.

This is a tiny circle, two or three people at most. They know everything about you. They can just look at you and know whether you’re having a good or bad day. They are the ones you turn to when you’ve really got a problem.

                                                                                                            Credit: International Center for Leadership in Education


We also have a second level of friends. In our circle, this group is much larger. I call it our “community.” They are our neighbors. They are the folks we work with every day. They are members of your bowling team or book club. If your daughter plays soccer, they are her teammates’ parents.

We know their names. We might know what they do for a living. We might know where they live. We might even know where they went to college.

This community has been important throughout our country’s history. For it is here where the “homogenization” of the nation occurred. This group tends to develop a shared value system. Don’t misunderstand. It’s not that everyone thinks alike – in fact, they probably don’t, especially given today’s volatile political atmospherics. But they do share a deeper common belief system. They agree on what’s right and wrong. Their core values are pretty much aligned.

Single-Issue “Friends”

Finally, we all have a third ring of friends. This band is very narrow in our circle.  These people are the ones you share a single issue.
                                                                                                            Credit: International Center for Leadership in Education

For example, if you are a superintendent attending a superintendents’ conference, you can instantly strike up a conversion with a colleague about “those darn mandatory state tests.” Or ask another, “Are you having the same problems I am with our teachers’ evaluation system?”

I am a Duke University basketball fan. I have a lot of respect for Coach Mike Krzyzewski.

I’m also on the road about 125 days a year.  So when I see someone in an airport sporting a Blue Devils hat or sweatshirt, I can instantly strike up a conversation. “What do you think of Coach K’s upcoming recruiting season?”  Or, “How about the Devils’ tournament run last spring?”

But here’s the problem: I don’t know this person’s name. I don’t know where he or she is from. I don’t know what they do for a living. I don’t know what they believe in.

I don’t know anything about them – except they like Duke basketball almost as much as I do.

No homogenization takes place in this ring. There are no shared values, aside from a love of Duke basketball. It’s a single-issue ring.

Our Kids and Social Media

Which brings us back to our students and social media.

Their widespread use of social media has superimposed this single-issue ring into the second “community” ring. Our students – as well as many adults – are talking with these single-issue people multiple times a day. They know their social media “friends” better than Mrs. Jones who lives across the street or Mr. Smith, their history teacher.

But they likely don’t know anything about who they are talking to. They don’t know because they’re only focused on a single, commonly shared interest.

If you’ve experienced my presentations, you know that I’ll sometimes ask audiences questions. Among my favorites are these:

Q: How many of you have sons or daughters in their twenties?
Q: Are they bringing home a “significant other” more frequently?
Q: As that relationship becomes more serious, do you think more deeply about him or her?
Q: Are you thinking about her high school transcript? His college courses?

Invariably, the audience agrees. No, they are not thinking about high school or college, but rather what kind of person he or she is, and whether or not they will be a good spouse to your child and a good parent to your future grandchildren.

Through our ongoing work with schools across the country, we have determined twelve guiding principles of character that communities and employers believe must be cultivated in children so they mature into high-functioning, productive adults.

Feel free to develop your own list, or consider ours:


A final thought about personal skill development and digital literacy:
Most companies and large colleges today vet candidates’ online profiles. The unfortunate truth is that what our students put online today could stand in the way of their dream college or career tomorrow.

Because social media is “forever,” students no longer have the luxury to make na├»ve mistakes and learn from them. This adds a degree of urgency to teaching students the underpinnings of character in an effort to provide them with the tools to make smart online decisions.

I believe it’s up to us as educators to emphasize digital literacy. “How” and “why” are up to each individual district – each district has its own unique DNA.

At ICLE’s Leadership Academy in October we’ll be focusing on teaching and learning in the digital age, led by practitioners who have walked the walk with digital learning and its many implications. We hope you’ll join us to gather their wisdom to take back to your teams.

Our number one job is to prepare students for successful careers. So let’s get started!

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