‘Paradoxical’ social media presents challenges, opportunities for youth coaches, Neumann professor says


Staff reporter


ASTON, Pa. – Social media is a force in our society, particularly among young people, and coaches and administrators who interact with them on a regular basis need to know how to make the online activity positive and handle what can be sticky situations, a Neumann University professor said earlier this month.

Margaret C. Stewart, who teaches communication and media arts, led a session on “The Good Use of Social Networks” at the Soul of Youth Sport conference, which was sponsored by the National Catholic Education Association and held at Neumann from June 15-17. She told approximately two dozen coaches and administrators about the “paradoxical” nature of social media — online platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram can be used for such positive purposes, but also may be very detrimental.

Margaret C. Stewart, an assistant professor of communication and media arts at Neumann University, advises coaches and administrators to stay informed about the latest trends in social media. (The Dialog/Mike Lang)

For example, high schools and universities can post game film, promote events and build their brand. It is an inexpensive way to market a program. Athletes can interact with fans directly and promote themselves to college recruiters.

“They have the opportunity to create a tremendous following for themselves at a very young age,” Stewart said.

On the other hand, however, there is a dark side. Student-athletes can complain, trash talk opponents or make inappropriate posts, some of which the coaches and administrators are left to clean up. College coaches and prospective employers commonly check an athlete’s online presence to see what they would be getting, and it’s very difficult to completely erase that footprint, she added.

“It’s apparent there’s a level of ignorance,” Stewart said. “They’re quick to dive into the pool without knowing what’s in it.”

Stewart made recommendations she called “the four E’s”: educate yourselves; establish a clear and reasonable social media policy; encourage positive brand management and promotion; and empower teenagers to create community, camaraderie and appropriate content.

It is important for coaches and administrators to stay in touch with what the younger generations are doing, Stewart said. Coaches and administrators should be able to have the “difficult conversations” with their student athletes about why their online activity could hurt them. Breaking down the barriers helps coaches stay informed about what their athletes are doing.

Establishing a social media policy is one way to prepare student athletes for the real world, where employers are “going to regulate their social media activity,” according to Stewart. A policy needs reasonable consequences for violations, “not necessarily to punish them, but to guide them to good.”

In her experience, Stewart said college juniors and seniors look at their social media profiles with an eye to the future, but that needs to start earlier, perhaps as early as seventh or eighth grade. That is where administrators can encourage positive brand management or promotion, the third “E.” Young people need to see how social media can be used positively.

Lastly, students should be empowered to create community, camaraderie and appropriate, tasteful content. This will help their self-esteem, Stewart said. Adults should help their young charges make their social media presence a point of pride.

“They feel more valued because of their online behavior,” she said.

This issue is important because social media is not going anywhere.

“Social media is changing the world,” Stewart said.