Ways social media is like fire, both good and bad, and how that metaphor helps us navigate the digital world

Ways social media is like fire, both good and bad, and how that metaphor helps us navigate the digital world

In Brene Brown’s latest book, Braving the Wilderness, she discusses social media and I keep coming back to her description of it and the metaphor she uses, which is a great one for framing conversations with our kids.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that the way we engage with social media is like fire—you can use them to keep yourself warm and nourished, or you can burn down the barn,” she says when explaining that she has a love/hate relationship with social media.  (It's on p. 140 of the book.)

Social media as fire - it makes perfect sense, and keeping that in mind can help both kids and adults navigate the digital world.

Here are some ways that social media is like fire, and what that means when using it.

We don’t let little kids play with fire.

Similarly, there’s wisdom in waiting until our kids have developed a level of maturity before diving into social media and even encouraging them to abide by the terms of service that require users to be a certain age. And just as there’s no set age at which fire is given to all kids, each child’s maturity level should be taken into account before turning it over.

Also, I don’t think many adults say, "Here are matches and some lighters - have fun, kids!” even when our kids are older. Adults show children how to handle fire, review safety and supervise at first, just like they should do when it comes to social media.

They both encourage community.

People who sit around a fire together are usually connected in some way, and it's likely that they'll feel even more connected around the fire than they did without it.

Community can be great and nourishing, as Brown says, so long as you find a good one that respects and encourages you. Not all communities are right for all people. And sometimes, you can get burned, by an individual or a group.

To that end, it's wise when we are online to follow the S'mores Test: If the person isn't someone you would want to make a s'more with around a fire in person, then they're not worth your time on social media. And remember to be someone others would like to make s'mores with as well. Which leads to the next point:

Lighting another candle doesn’t diminish your light.

I love Brown's notion of fire nourishing us and think the same can be true of social media. Have a family conversation about the ways each person has benefitted from social media. Seems likely that many of those instances come from people sharing with others.

I love the idea that lighting someone else’s candle doesn’t diminish your light.  You can share compliments and information at no cost on social media, but it can have a big impact. Encourage your kids to be kind and generous on social media, and in real life.

Sharing and story telling (sometimes of very tall tales) takes place around both fire and social media.

Fires inspire songs and stories, and there's a reason that campfire stories and campfire songs are their own genres. While the tales told around the fire are important for many reasons, they're not necessarily known for their veracity. Sometimes they are true, other times they are embellished and/or exaggerated, other times they are plain made up.

Stories on social media span the same spectrum. Remembering that not everything you see online is true and taking things with a grain of salt are important approaches.

When it gets too intense, know when to step away.

When you warm yourself by a fire, chances are that after a period of time, you step away. The heat can get a little intense over time and you need a break. The same is true of social media. There can be too much of a good thing.

Some fires intensify faster than anticipated – the same can happen on social media. A little distance, or a lot, can make you feel much better.

Pay attention to your feelings and know when to step back from social media.

Scorched earth takes years to return to its prior state, and some areas never recover.

Posts on social media are often described as “spreading like wildfire.” And as we’ve tragically seen in California recently, wildfires get out of control very quickly, can wreak havoc, and cause heartbreak.

Brown talks about burning down the barn, but I think the damage can go beyond that. Social media can do serious harm, both to others and ourselves and our reputations. (For more on that, check out Shame Nation by Sue Scheff and Melissa Schorr.)

A social media post can lead to scorched earth, and as in real life, the scars can be visible be visible far into the future.

Social media needs to handled with caution. Like fire, it can be very difficult to control and can turn from something small to something big in the blink of an eye. When in doubt, refrain from posting, as posting temporary feelings can cause permanent damage.

Here's hoping that our kids and us - everyone, really - finds ways to use social media to make us feel warm and cozy and surrounded by people who see appreciate us as we see and appreciate them. May it be a place to find kindness and understanding.

Prior Post: 5 great pieces about teens worth reading this week

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