As parents, it is understandable to see the potentiality of sexual exploitation on social media as a black and white issue. Arguably, the easiest solution to protect your athlete from the vulnerabilities of social media is to urge them to stay off, but the likelihood of success with this strategy is simply not realistic. In order to understand why social media is so important to your athlete, you have to look to the grey areas of the issue.
Whether we like it or not, social media has become an avenue of social connection with interpersonal implications that bleed into everyday life experiences. Social media will not disappear, so the issue becomes, “How we can help young athletes understand the positive utilization of social media while protecting themselves and reducing the possibility of image exploitation?”
I understand both sides of this issue and have a unique perspective because I am both a coach and an athlete myself. I am connected to and value social media in my everyday life but have also explored the real issues impacting All Star Dance and Cheer athletes through USASF education initiatives. I have been very involved with USASF throughout the years by participating in the USASF Scholarship Program, serving as a member of the 2015 Class of Young Leaders, which worked to create the B.O.L.T. and M.A.R.C.H. programs that high school athletes are able to participate in today, attending USASF conferences since 2012, serving on the Regional Advisory Board, and most recently, by participating in the WE S.H.A.R.E. (Speak Honestly About Real Experiences) initiative.
As a young leader in the industry, I understand the importance of progress on this issue but as a young adult, I was nervous about how my freedom of expression on social media would be hindered. I think, as parents, that statement might sound odd because the possibility of sexual exploitation through social media is reason enough to be terrified. However, in order to connect to your athlete and offer help and some suggestions on how to navigate this complex topic in a collaborative manner, it is important to understand why social media is important to your athlete.
As All Star athletes, our bodies become our art, our vehicle by which we turn, flip, fly, jump and leap through the air, and the machine that performs athletic feats that wow audiences around our communities, our country and even the world. As athletes, we work hard, we push our bodies to the limit and we condition to compete which, very often, becomes physically visible to outside eyes. We are proud of our bodies and want to show off our hard work. For me, when I post a picture it is because I am proud of my happiness, passion, determination, fitness or the milestone displayed through the image. Each of those reasons are positive but had I not been exposed to the importance of taking steps to ensure my own safety, those reasons could be exploited into something that was not intended.
Through the WE S.H.A.R.E. initiative I was able to connect with other All Star alumni and current All Star athletes to try and formulate possible strategies for navigating these issues. Together, our collaborative discussions can be summarized by three safety checks all athletes and young people can analyze before posting on a social media platform: Why, How, and Where.
We agreed that we have personally seen the positive impact of social media through All Star. Social media connects us to the larger All Star community and provides a platform to share our love for dance and cheer, but we must also recognize there is a bigger issue. Our reasons for posting differed but we all agreed that there should be a reason. It is important for kids, teens, and young adults to understand and be able to analyze their own reasoning for posting on social media. An additional societal issue implicated with social media is cyberbullying which could also benefit from this first safety check.
By analyzing WHY we post, we may decide something isn’t worth posting and it could also impact the nature by which we post and thus limit the possibility for exploitation. Striving to post for healthy reasons is a step to create a more kind, positive, understanding, and safe internet community.
Secondly, we analyzed HOW we post on social media. We talked about how we present ourselves on social media and how our posts can be perceived. As parents, it is important to help your athletes understand that how they perceive their posts may not be the same way the posts are perceived by others. Through WE. S.H.A.R.E., we talked a lot about context, captions, filters and posing of/in images. A picture with a questionable caption or problematic pose can turn an innocently intended picture into an inappropriate picture. Additionally, posting with another person makes images more difficult to exploit. Understanding how to make exploitation more difficult can assist in helping limit safety concerns. It is also important for athletes to understand that they are not only representing themselves. By accepting this as a responsibility, athletes can challenge themselves to be the best representation of themselves, their team, and of All Star as a whole.
Through analyzing the HOW when posting, athletes can help to protect themselves to ensure the perception they are intending is evident from the outside looking in.
Finally, we found it important to analyze WHERE we post. Talking with your athlete about privacy settings is especially significant. Setting profiles to public allows anyone to see photos and posts which allows unintended eyes to view their pictures and posts. By simply setting profiles to private, athletes can begin to limit who can see their profiles. Additionally, including hashtags or location tags, can make posts trackable. A person with ill-intentions could find your athlete’s post simply by searching for a hashtag or location.
Understanding and choosing WHERE to post with intention can protect athletes from unintended audiences.
Athletes can utilize these three safety checks, WHY, HOW, and WHERE, to frame the context, look to the intention of each image and make sure the pictures and words are their own and cannot be manipulated. Putting the power in your athlete’s hands to ensure that they have control of their own images is an empowering way to assist her/him in making safer, positive choices on social media.
To hear the in-depth conversations of Alumni and Current All Star Athletes on this issue, please view the first episode of USASF’s WE. S.H.A.R.E. video series. Share it with your All Star athlete to create clear pathways for addressing these complex concerns and open up the conversation to promote safety and understanding.