Dr. Jill Walsh Talks With Faculty About Social Media and Adolescence

Dr. Jill Walsh

“Technology is neither good nor bad—it all depends on how we use it,” Dr. Jill Walsh reminded faculty during opening meetings. Dr. Walsh is a sociologist, researcher, and lecturer at Boston University, focused on adolescent development and social media use. She aims to help parents and educators establish healthy parameters around teen social media use and foster positive and open communication around technology among parents, schools, and teens.


Dr. Walsh began by quoting David Carr who likened social media to a “series of straws that offer narrow views of a much bigger picture.”


“We have to make students aware of this reality,” says Dr. Walsh, “remind them that what they’re seeing is tailored, manipulated—that it’s curated by the person posting it, so that you see what they want you to.”


Dr. Walsh discussed teens’ emerging and evolving “media diets,” or how and where they spend their time online. She explained what she sees as adolescent boys’ time spent on digital viewership (sites like YouTube), online gaming, and social media.


The “idioms of practice” that older people have are simply different from that of young people who have come of age in this digital space, she explained. For example, the ways in which we construe privacy, meaningful friendship, “good” communication, and the existence of an online versus offline dichotomy vary greatly.


“Because we adults don’t necessarily know the scene, or are uncomfortable with it, we ignore it until it reaches crisis point,” Dr. Walsh says. “We need to reframe our approach. Rather than focusing on the very latest app, we should recognize that—regardless of the medium—young people are facing challenges we know about and are well versed in: social pressures, making good choices, creating healthy boundaries.”


She offered suggestions and insight on how adults can communicate effectively with students on these topics. She also shared her biggest concerns related to adolescents’ online use, such as effects on sleep, emotional contagion, and social comparisons (body image and commercial consumption).


As Headmaster Kerry Brennan has shared with parents, “At RL, paying attention to the whole boy has been a central part of our mission for a long time.” Programs, workshops and courses for boys, focused on topics like sleep, nutrition, and overall wellness (physical, psychological and emotional) have been modified and expanded each year. During opening meetings, members of the faculty presented to one another findings related to boys’ patterns of sleep and technology use throughout the year. All of this work is to better understand and best serve the boys in our care.

Jill Walsh earned her a Ph.D. in sociology from Boston University, her master’s in Public Policy from Brown University, and her bachelor’s from Harvard University. Prior to completing her graduate coursework, she taught, coached, and mentored high school students at the Noble and Greenough School. Her recent work examines the way that social media, and the need to document the self online, has altered the paths to adolescent development. Her dissertation titled The Highlight Reel and Real Me: How Adolescents Construct the Facebook Fable, is a multi-method study arguing that Facebook has become a public space where adolescents engage in self-reflection and dialogue. This work has been developed into a book that will be published in 2017. Dr. Walsh currently teaches undergraduate and graduate level courses on the intersection between society and technology, with an emphasis on the millennial generation.