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Program teaches right use of social media

| Friday, Aug. 26, 2016, 4:30 p.m.
Socialize Right co-founder Eric Sloss of Shift Collaborative
Shift Collaborative
Socialize Right co-founder Eric Sloss of Shift Collaborative
Josh Miller and Eris Sloss teaching the Pitt Panthers football team about social media.
Shift Collaborative
Josh Miller and Eris Sloss teaching the Pitt Panthers football team about social media.
Josh Miller ex-Steelers punter and broadcaster on 93.7FM The Fan, makes a Socialize Right presentation to Pitt football players.
Shift Collaborative
Josh Miller ex-Steelers punter and broadcaster on 93.7FM The Fan, makes a Socialize Right presentation to Pitt football players.

You've seen it happen hundreds of times. Somebody — an athlete, an actor, a politician — says something stupid on social media. Or just says something shaved of its context, tone and inflection, and the damage is done.

But what if it's your kids?

It's too easy to have reputations ruined, scholarships revoked, jobs denied because of a few errant tweets or an embarrassing image on Instagram. Even the most media-savvy people can see it all go bad, fast. Josh Miller, ex-Steelers punter and broadcaster on 93.7 FM The Fan, has seen it happen many times with athletes.

“Way more than a few. Guys think they're doing inside jokes and don't realize they're being judged on a bigger scale,” Miller says. “They think they're just talking to 17, 18 of their buddies.

“You work your whole life, ‘building your brand,' and one dumb comment or one bad day ... everything you worked for is down the tubes.”

Miller — along with Cynthia Closkey, Sarah Mayer and Eric Sloss, principal partners of Shift Collaborative — constructed a series of presentations called Socialize Right (socializeright.org) tailored to schools, teams and individual families to address this problem. It was inspired by a social-media presentation that Shift was hired to give for the Cincinnati Bengals.

“I talked to Josh about educating kids who are born with this type of technology, creating a program to help them understand their world and present themselves the right way,” Sloss says. “And the parents, there's a digital gap between parents and children.”

They shaped the idea and pitched it to a couple local schools, including Fox Chapel. “They embraced it,” Sloss says.

Dan Lentz, program principal at Fox Chapel Area High School, saw the program's utility immediately.

“Nobody's teaching these kids how to handle this,” says Lentz, who is now consulting for Socialize Right. “It's huge thing to have to handle.

“I don't want to make it sound like there's an issue at my school, but schools in general today — the cellphones and other devices that students have access to, and social media. The potential is great in both directions. It can be a blessing and a curse. It's allowed schools to extend the classroom into the home, with access to educational information, unlike what any other generation has ever seen.

“But also typical teenager stuff — they can't get away from it. It's up there on Twitter, on Facebook, forever. Ten years ago, I could have a conversation with someone and, by the weekend, it'll be over with. Now that's not the case.”

Socialize Right uses examples of athletes and celebrities using social media poorly, and those who do it well. Neither is in short supply.

“We use Taylor Swift, things she's reacted to on social media,” Sloss says, and examples regarding the Kardashians.

The experts also give examples of how social media can be done well.

“We try to educate students about their brand,” Lentz says. “What they put out there is out there forever. It depicts who you are as a person. There are people who have built a positive image for themselves through social media, like Andrew McCutchen. He doesn't use it to badmouth the other team or teammates. He's trying to get out a positive message.”

Pro athletes seem to know better now, for the most part.

“Everyone knows Ray Lewis was involved in some bad stuff,” Miller says. “Now (if you look at his social media), he's involved with the church and charities. There's a lot of people patching up their past. It's a platform to show what they're like now.”

Other athletes, including Steelers safety Will Allen and ex-Pitt quarterback Pat Bostick, have participated in Socialize Right programs, giving their insights on how to craft an online persona.

“We connect it to what's happening in the high schools now,” Sloss says. “A lot of Division 1 athletes have lost scholarships because their coaches got hold of their Twitter feeds, pictures. ”

Cyber-bullying is another focus of Socialize Right, with insights from the work of Pittsburgh child psychologist Dr. Terry O'Hara.

“For boys, it's a verbal joust,” Sloss says. “For girls, it's the exclusion which forms bullying patterns. ... Those are patterns Dr. O'Hara has helped us analyze.

“We can look at (social media) feeds if they're public and provide a report for a parent. Some parents follow their kids online, but they don't have time to continuously monitor that feed. We can audit their social-media feeds, and what Dr. O'Hara can do is analyze that content and flag some of it that could be questionable.”

Parents should be an essential part of the solution, they stress.

“The audit was very easy,” says Rosa Leslie, who has 12-year-old twins in the Pine-Richland School District. “It provided my husband and I a summary of what social-media channels my daughters were involved in. It provided both positive and negative feedback that allowed us to guide them appropriately.”

Part of the picture is simply understanding the way kids' brains are wired.

“I see a lot of impulsivity,” O'Hara says. “Children and adolescents have rapidly developing brains and are much more unlikely to think about the consequences of their choices. Another issue is that, due to the abstraction of social media, the impact of one's actions can be less tangible, and it is quite easy to exhibit cruelty.”

Miller's advice about using social media couldn't be simpler: “If you have to explain it, don't hit send. It might seem hilarious to you, but too bad. You can't knock on every door and explain that joke.”

Michael Machosky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at mmachosky@tribweb.com or 412-320-7901.

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