Social Media 201: Embracing the Digital World

Center for Family Engagement Logo

Subscribe for Updates


Notes from the Backpack banner

Episode 69│Social Media 201: Embracing the Digital World

Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023

Subscribe on your favorite podcast platform:

Apple Podcasts Google Podcasts Stitcher Spotify Tune In

Listen now:

Show Notes

Laura Tierney

When our kids talk about the latest social media trends, it can feel like they’re speaking a foreign language. Founder and CEO of The Social Institute, Laura Tierney, joined the show to help us understand how we can best support our children in navigating the current social media landscape. She highlights the importance of positive social media education and shares how technology can support our children’s mental health and even their study habits.


Thanks to Norton, a longtime PTA Proud National Sponsor, for supporting this episode.


Keep the Conversation Going

Like this episode? Share your thoughts with us via social media @National PTA and by using #BackpackNotes. Be sure to visit for more resources from today’s episode.


Kisha DeSandies Lester: Welcome to today's episode. I'm Kisha DeSandies Lester.

Helen Westmoreland: And I'm Helen Westmoreland and we are your co-hosts. Today, we're returning to a very important topic, social media. You may remember our interview with Sameer Hinduja about social media and cyber bullying, but today we're gonna dive a bit deeper into the subject and look at it through a positive lens. We also wanna examine what has changed since we recorded that episode over a year ago, because we know the social media landscape is definitely a changing.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: Yes, it is every day, and I'm excited that today we have Laura Tierney here to talk about what social media is right now and what it's gonna be in the future, and everything that parents need to know. Laura is the founder and CEO of the Social Institute, an organization that empowers students and their role models to positively navigate social emotional health, social media, and technology. A social media expert, educator, and technologist, she created the hashtag win at social program by combining her sports leadership experience with her career of managing social media for world-class brands. As a digital native herself, she is bridging the gap between adults and students as the nation's leader in positive social media education. Welcome to the show, Laura. Tell us a little bit about yourself and your work.

Laura Tierney: Oh, Kisha and Helen, thank you so much for having me. I started the Social Institute about six years ago, and it was born from this idea that I, myself as a student, wish I had, access to Education and positive ways to navigate this ever-changing complex world of social media and technology. I was 13 years old when I got my first phone, and it's not really like the smartphone I have today, but it did connect me with all my friends, through those 10 cent text messages that we used to send, back in the day. And I felt like adults were constantly telling our generation how terrible, this world of social media and technology was. It was gonna destroy our generation. It was gonna chip away at our self-esteem. It was gonna expose us to not so great role models. And I feel like while some of that is true, there's also, there are also many positives to this world of social media and technology. And so we aim to support schools across the country in bringing that positive education to students.

Helen Westmoreland: That is wonderful. I have to admit, I am like, barely even on Facebook. Like that's how much of a dinosaur I am when it comes to technology. But I know that even parents who are fairly with it, like can sometimes have trouble keeping up with what's going on.

So could you, Laura, start by just telling us a little bit about the state of social media right now. What are the major platforms that kids are on and how are they using them?

Laura Tierney: Sure. So let me preface that you are not alone, if you feel behind the curve. You're not alone in that, many parents subscribe to that thinking, well here's something I often share with parents I don't know about, about you all, but when I was, in middle school, I went to the mall on a Friday night. I'm from small town Pennsylvania. There wasn't much to do on a Friday night. You go to the mall and your friends are at that mall. You socialize there, you go to the food court with them, and if your parent shows up at that mall and sits down at the food court with you, you are finding a new mall and you're getting to that new mall. And social media, is that ever-evolving new mall, that the students are, flocking to. Facebook was that mall, and then parents showed up at it, and then now, it's the old mall. Where students are socializing now, of course, differs by grade level. For middle school you see the, the top apps that students are using to socialize, be TikTok, Snapchat, and even YouTube and texting, rank up there. And those aren't going away anytime soon. High school, different ballgame. TikTok is the favorite go-to app for 46% of high school students, then followed by Snapchat and even Instagram is kind of losing its edge. And, and now you see also Be Real, up on the board with students. And I think therein lies the challenge in the state of social media. Adults, parents will constantly feel like they're at the old mall. And how do you possibly support your children, when you're kind of behind the game? And that's certainly what we aspire to do at TSI, it's a labor of love for sure.

Helen Westmoreland: Thank you. That is a very helpful overview. I don't even know what Be Real is.

Laura Tierney: So Be Real is new on the scene as is, you all may have heard of the new app Gas, which it's focused on, like positivity and uplifting others while be real is focused more on like transparency, no editing, like no messing with, so they're both kind of standing for, I feel like some good values. And but again, if they're a bit foreign to parents, they might feel a little scary at first. One trick that I encourage families to lean into is to ask your child to coach you on some of the newest apps that are hitting the scene. Because, Be Real and Gas, you definitely wanna know about .

Helen Westmoreland: Thank you.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: Yeah, I'm on everything but TikTok and Be Real and Gas. Yeah. I love the mall analogy, I think with the pandemic, it really showed how all of us could connect and communicate. And I think parents really understand like, oh, okay, this is a way for my child to express themselves, but also to connect with other people, especially when they could not do so physically. How can parents understand how social media plays into that and what do they need to know?

Laura Tierney: That's a great question. I mean, I think there's several core truths that it's important to keep in mind following a two year pandemic. One is, social media is how students are social. It's how they connect with friends. It's how they learn about trends. It's now how they even purchase things that they need in the classroom and outside of the classroom. And it's becoming, even more than just how, how you socialize. And it's not going away anytime soon. I believe parents across the country are re-imagining their family's relationship to social media.

Old school, way of looking at this is, oh, you're working on homework. I need you to get your smartphone out of the room and charging downstairs. Mm-hmm. Yeah. New school, way of looking at it is, oh, you could download the Forest app, which is helping you focus on your classwork and, helping you build that 21st century skill of focus all through an app on your smartphone. It's about empowering and equipping your child, , instead of scaring and restricting them. Mm-hmm. And then I think at its core is probably one of the biggest things I think families are leaning into following the pandemic. I'm curious, Kisha, have you seen that or experienced that?

Kisha DeSandies Lester: Yes, as we've gone through the pandemic and we dealt with children who had important milestones and they couldn't do them in the traditional way or whatever they were mentally expecting. And it's really, like you said, it's changed the way families operate. And this whole like,  limiting screen time, well during the pandemic, I mean, screen time was sanity. It's not about limiting the screen time, it's about the quality of your screen time. So hearing you say, the Forest app, that's what you called it, right? I need to look that up because my son, he's always had schoolwork, but he has this week started traditional homework in first grade and I had a whole conversation with him about, you're on the journey of homework and all of those things, and he's half rolling his eyes at me, but that's okay.

I'm definitely gonna try out that app, because I think that's what parents need.

And I think that goes into our next question, which is what are some other ways, of interacting with social media? I had a diary when I was growing up and the big thing is you didn't want your mom to read your diary, you know? But not too long ago, I was the single girl and my friends had these kids and I'm like, do you see your child is like on social media and they're on this and that? And they're like, oh yeah, we know, we're not looking like, what approach do you think parents should take?

Laura Tierney: I find one of the greatest trends and things that we see in, the research following the pandemic is how anxiety and depression among students is going up. The children feel like, hey, how can we use social media and technology to work for us, not against us? And how can we use it to kind of minimize those feelings of anxiety and sometimes depression The students already know that social media and tech has endless possibilities. I think it's such a skill as a parent to be able to tap into that and say, okay, if my child is, suffering, well maybe I could lean in and we could talk about using the Calm app on their device instead of only seeing social media and tech as a negative. I think analogies are so powerful when talking about social media to parents because, analogies help bring relevance of course to something that might seem a bit foreign to you and I think of social media and screen time often, like the food pyramid.

It's not that food is bad it's just that the top of that food pyramid, you better, hopefully limit your consumption of chocolates and sweets. And we know that, and we're taught that from early ages, and screen time is no different at the base of that pyramid, is ways that you could socialize through technology as a family, through FaceTime, through games that you could play together, like Heads Up, and then as you move up the pyramid, well, we can use technology to learn, we can help use technology to help us concentrate and focus on things that matter most to us. We can use social media to follow role models. I remember doing that in high school. I'm from a small town. It exposed me to so many cool people that reinforced positive values in my life.

But then as you get up that pyramid, there's a lot of bad habits that you could build if you mm-hmm, pay, too much time in that section at the top. So just recognizing that if we can empower and equip our kids rather than scare and restrict them, we can activate most of that pyramid rather than being afraid of it.

Helen Westmoreland: Mm-hmm. That's a very good analogy.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: That's really, really good.

Helen: And now for a quick break. Parenting in the digital age is complex and families need tools to help kids and teens stay safe online. Norton is a global leader in consumer cyber safety, protecting and empowering people to live their digital lives safely. Norton is also a longtime proud national sponsor of National PTA, and together we created the Smart Talk, a free interactive resource that brings caregivers and kids of all ages together to create their family's tech ground rules recently updated for more ages and stages and now available in Spanish. Start the conversation with your family at and learn how Norton is making protection for your digital life easy at

Kisha DeSandies Lester: There's a lot of discussion about protecting our children's mental health, all of our mental health, not just because of the pandemic. I think that just pulled the curtain away of things that were already happening. But how would you talk to parents who are concerned about their child's mental health in regards to social media? What they see not just the cyberbullying, but also just the people who compare themselves. What's your advice to parents on that?

Laura Tierney: There's research coming out, feels like weekly on this topic and they're showing that, the amount of the dopamine that's hitting, these teenage brains, and how that even skews stronger, especially for young girls. Our mental health is impacted by what we're consuming. The role models or lack of role models in our feeds, the accounts we're following, the media that pops up, that sets a standard for how we should look and compare ourselves to others and more. And so I think this is an amazing time of year to huddle with your child, your children, about what is influencing them.

Taking a look at your feed and not just saying, oh, well, who should we unsubscribe and unfollow? But also who can you follow to help set a positive standard for mental health? A great example is like students are leaning into TikTok to learn different types of like meditation, but they're also seeing trends on TikTok of self-diagnosing yourself, which leads to unhealthy decisions. Mm-hmm. And so again, like, like any tool, it can be used for positive or negative. The more we can help, I think our children get the negative out there by inserting more positive is a nice way of helping social media have a more positive influence on our mental health.

Helen Westmoreland: I wanna pivot and talk about what schools are doing vis-a-vis social media and technology a little bit. I was on a call last night with a bunch of incredible parent leaders and it came up that like most of their schools all write, no social media allowed, on any computer, which I understand.

But I am curious, Laura, from your perspective, when you think of some of the things that schools are doing well, to help kids navigate social media and things that they're not doing so well, what is your take on that?

Laura Tierney: Yeah, well, just like families are reimagining what their relationship is to social media and education, so are school leaders, across the country and counselors and they are acknowledging the need for proactive education, around social media, around technology and how it naturally integrates with wellness.

Long gone are the days where schools are now saying, oh, well there's digital citizenship in one corner over here, and now let's focus on mental health over here in this other class. They're so integrated. It's like a flywheel. It's all together. So I find schools who are leading the way, see it as how do we embed this education proactively into the fabric of our school schedule, and how do we partner with the parents to give them options and best practices? Mm-hmm. Let's not tell parents how to parent, but let's make them aware of different tools that your children could be using.

And they have a deep respect for each family's values and saying, hey, you know your child's best. Here's just some education and you kind of go and design the best plan for your family. That's one of the core pillars I think, of what schools are leaning into.

Helen Westmoreland:  Do schools have classes for that? Like do they, do you know of any schools that like, have that as part of their core curriculum?

Laura Tierney: Great question. Schools are weaving this you could say it like positive social media education. Yeah, into homeroom, advisory, health class, even social studies, what they're doing is they're taking moments, whether it be a week ago, a month ago, a year ago, and they're using that, a moment in time to be a teachable moment, for children to reflect on and discuss, what can we learn from that?

Gosh, you see it in the news so much, posting something and it didn't represent their values, nor the values of the school and they got expelled from it. Well, that's important to touch on that. But there's also so many positive use cases going on in the world, and I believe firmly, you know, kids can't be what they can't see. So all day we could talk about the negatives going on in the world, but if schools can also highlight all the positive ways, they're using social media, that's, I think, a gift. It's a lifelong lesson for students.

Helen Westmoreland: Oh, that's such good advice. I like that.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: It is. You really got me thinking, it's really just parenting. I think sometimes in my journey as a mom, my husband and I, we just realize it's just a teachable moment. We make the thing this really, you know, big distraction when the real issue is it's a teachable moment. How can parents advocate for this type of education if they don't think it's happening?

Laura Tierney: Sure. Well, I've seen it happen numerous times of it could be one or more parents, talking with the PTA for your school and understanding that this is actually a very common need among families and expressing that need, to a school administrator or a counselor. And it really truly is a partnership. It's not about parents pointing their finger at the school saying, well, you do something about this. And it's not the school pointing their finger at the parents saying, well, you figure out a solution to this. It's coming together to form a partnership to say, hey, when you have advisory or homeroom, can you dedicate even a 15 minute discussion where the students can huddle as a group, and talk about these teachable moments and you get the gift of positive peer influence in those moments. And then after you talk about it, can there be discussion questions that go home to families, so families can continue the conversation and put their fingerprints and values on the conversation, and I think that's the future of this kind of learning.

Helen Westmoreland: I know you work directly with a lot of young people, do they want their parents to talk to them about it? What are young people like, where are they in this equation of the partnership and what you hear them asking for?

Laura Tierney: So one of my favorite parts about our work at the Social Institute, this is what gets me out of bed every morning is when we started the organization, We built out a program called our Student Ambassadors, and we huddle with students across the country every other week talking about things that matter most to them. And we are firm believers in student voice, is the future of this education. And so students, they want to talk about topics that matter to them. It's that they want to feel heard and respected and not lectured around these topics. You wanna get on their level, you wanna ask a lot of open questions. And Kisha like back to your point like, this is parenting, at the end of the day. It might be about a topic that is a little bit foreign to us, but the more that we can get a child to open up about it, the more we build trust at the end of the day. And that's your ticket an amazing relationship is building that trust over time.

I think it's about starting young too, because if you come at these conversations, from left field. It could feel awkward at first, but one thing we always tell schools, you know, repetition is the mother of learning. So the, the more we huddle as a family and the more we repeat that habit, the more a student gets used to it and opens up over time.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: I love that this is so inspiring, and I hope it really helps parents that are listening today. For me and also Helen, our children are not old enough. Yes, thank God to be on social media. Now my son is aware of it because I am on social media. But you said it's not going away. So when he is old enough and when, all my children are old enough social media's gonna look different. So what do you think the future of social media is gonna look like? What are your thoughts on that?

Laura Tierney: Well, if, if I may answer that question, but just a, a question back to you both, which is how would, how would you both just define social media?

Helen Westmoreland: Oh, that's a good question.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: Wow. You got me. Yeah. You call it a mall, but I, I see it as just a, a place where you can connect with people, where you can share a little bit about your world and also where you can get news. And you made me laugh when you talked about purchasing where you can buy things too, because they get me as well, so,

Laura Tierney: Yeah. Yeah.

Helen Westmoreland: I'm gonna cosign Kisha's definition. I think that's a good one.

Laura Tierney: Yeah. Yeah. I put that question back there because I posed that question to, to parents to really think about how you define social media. Cause I think of it as, chop off that second word, media and just think of it is, it's your child using technology to socialize with others, which could be texting, it could be YouTube even if they don't create any YouTube videos of their own. It doesn't have to be the iconic social media platforms like TikTok or Instagram. So your child might be in you know, might be in first grade, like mine is right now, and they're using FaceTime. to connect with family members far away.

Helen Westmoreland: We FaceTime a lot. I didn't even think about it.

Laura Tierney: And FaceTime is, think about, it's social, it's screenshotable. It could get you in a lot of trouble. It's where you express yourself. But it could also be an amazing thing. For family members and others. So I challenge parents to think your child is probably already using social media right now, even if they're not on Instagram or TikTok yet. And so think of it as, think about any great athlete. Like, let's take Serena Williams. Serena didn't go pro right away. She kind of eased into playing pro tennis. Granted, she's really, really good at it. She eased in over time and I think we can ease our kids into social media over time. Even if they're in kindergarten or first grade, they may be using texting or FaceTime, but we gotta ease them into it. They might be watching Netflix or Amazon Prime. You can ease them into those things. You can go into the settings of Netflix for a kindergarten or first grader, and you could turn off access to certain shows automatically populating. That's a great example of a move that you could make to ease your child into any social technology.

And then, the minimum age limit for some of the more iconic apps like Instagram, TikTok, it's 13 years old and it's not 13 years old because, a bunch of psychologists sat down in Silicon Valley to understand the prefrontal cortex and all that, it's because of privacy. And most parents don't know that. And so they withhold a platform until 13 and they're like, great, now you can go pro and jump into this app. So the more that we really ease children in, think about rookie, varsity, pro and build your milestones as a family. And as you're building those milestones, I think you build mental muscle with your children.

Helen Westmoreland: Oh, I love that. I feel like if nothing else today, I've gotten so many great analogies from you, Laura. But just also so much great information. I wanna ask, you've shared a lot of great advice. If there was just one thing, kind of one nugget you really wanna put front and center for a parent as a takeaway from today's conversation what would that be?

Laura Tierney: Empower and equip instead of scare and restrict in you, ooh, yes. You have an amazing, as parents, we have an amazing opportunity to help our child thrive because of technology, you know, not in spite of it. And so really unlocking all the positives that can come with it, and if you aren't familiar with the positives, no worries. Let your child coach up and show you what's possible.

Helen Westmoreland: Laura, you are an incredible positive role model for our young people. And we've been talking a lot about social media. Do you have any social media handles that our listeners can to tap into for learning more on this topic?

Kisha DeSandies Lester: So I can follow you.

Laura Tierney: You better believe we are on on social media. I have, you know, my own accounts where I'm sharing the, the latest news at us. It's called Solaur my first part of my name, S O L A U R. And then our team at the Social Institute is constantly sharing what we're learning about from students and new trends and research studies and more. So you can also follow our team at the social institute as well.

Helen Westmoreland: Thank you so much for joining us. This has been such an incredible conversation. Kisha, I don't know about you, but I feel much more prepared for the years to come and much more assured that I'm already doing some things.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: Oh, yeah. I mean, the light bulb completely went off. So thank you so much, Laura. That was really, really, inspirational.

Laura Tierney: Well, thank you for having, thank you for having me.

Helen Westmoreland: And to our listeners, thank you for joining us as well. Please remember to visit our Apple Podcast page and leave a rating and review so we can know what else you wanna hear about what you thought of this episode. And as always, for more resources related to today's episode, check out Thanks for listening, and tune in next time.