When Michael McGuire was a student-athlete at Greybull High School in the mid 1990s, social media were decades away from being a part of every day life.
Maybe the dynamic in Big Horn today is unique enough that social media isn't an overwhelming trend among teenagers in the small community nestled northeast of the Bighorn National Forest. But McGuire knows his students and players use social media, and that's not going to stop any time soon.
“We’re not going to get rid of it,” McGuire said. “It’s just something that we have to talk to kids about being responsible on.”
But where that exact responsibility lies is only beginning to be established around the country and in Wyoming.
Social media use
A harsh national spotlight was placed on teenagers' use of social media in March. Two Steubenville, Ohio, high school football players – Ma'lik Richmond and Trent Mays – were convicted for the rape of a 16-year-old West Virginia girl, and social media played a monumental role in bringing the assault to light. Teammates shared photos and videos of and referencing the assault, and also posted crude jokes to Twitter.
Steubenville football coach Reno Saccoccia famously told The Cleveland Plain Dealer he didn't "do the internet" after the assault was made public, but that's not an excuse in today's digital age.
A study published in May by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that teens are sharing more information about themselves on social media sites than they did in the past. The study found that 64 percent of teens with Twitter accounts say that their tweets are public, while only 24 percent have their accounts protected. Somewhat distressing if the fact 12 percent said they didn’t know if their tweets are public or private.
Teen Twitter use also grew from from 2011 to 2012 (from 16 percent to 24 percent), with public accounts the norm for teen Twitter users, the study said. The study also found teens with Facebook profiles most often choose private settings, but Twitter users are much more likely to have a public account.
“If you try to outlaw it, you’re beating your head against the wall because it’s something that’s there, and it’s going to be here to stay,” McGuire, the head football coach at Big Horn, said. “I think you just educate them … and hope they make good decisions.”
The most recent known Wyoming social media faux pas came from former Sheridan football standout Jordan Roberts in 2012. Unhappy with his recruitment by Wyoming, he tweeted out a derogatory statement about the university after announcing his commitment to the University of South Dakota.
It was a minor blip on the social media radar, but in the aftermath, Roberts said he never thought anyone would see the tweet.
“That’s the way kids communicate [now],” Natrona County football coach Steve Harshman said. “But it’s like anything you teach -- you’ve got to be smart.
“Just because you’re on Facebook, doesn’t mean you can say anything you want. If you’re not saying it face-to-face, then don’t say it on Facebook.”
Lack of specific policies
In November 2011, the Wyoming High School Activities Association added language into its handbook concerning social media guidelines, but only to deal with coaches and administrators posting negative or critical remarks on social media.
WHSAA Commissiner Ron Laird said social media, like drug and alcohol policies, is being left to the schools and school districts to administer.
The National Federation of High Schools has a similar stance. B. Elliot Hopkins, the NFHS director of sports, sanctioning and educational services, said in an email that many of their member state associations' schools have policies in place to address the increase of cyber-bullying. Some coaches have also established separate social media policies.
But the NFHS is still aware of the increase in social media use.
“It is a concern nationally,” Hopkins said in an email. “We hear, anecdotally, of too many instances in athletics and in other performing arts [speech and debate, theater, spirit] that online trash-talking is occurring prior to a competition.”
While Hopkins said the NFHS doesn’t plan to provide any additional information to its members, that position could change -- and quickly -- if there are requests for additional materials.
Laird said he was unaware of any schools with a specific social media policy. He added he expected schools to have, at a minimum, general language in a participation agreement or code of conduct that could address a potential social media issue. But the WHSAA doesn't have the staff to be “checking everybody’s Twitter,” so enforcement is, again, left to the schools.
Current policies may be general enough to deal with social media missteps, but McGuire wasn't aware of anything specific to social media in Big Horn's code of conduct. Kelly Walsh coach Jon Vance said he isn't aware of any specific social media guidelines in the Natrona County School District policies, either.
Both Vance and McGuire, young coaches who use social media as a way to distribute information, said they haven't had any major issues with players on social media.
“If we had an issue,” Vance said, “I’d visit with them about it.”
But Natrona County activities director Larry Meeboer believes specific social media policies are on the horizon.
“It may be coming sooner than we think,” Meeboer said of a policy for students.
Social media has the potential to be problematic, but it has also been a blessing for coaches.
Vance, McGuire and Harshman all talked about the benefits social media provides in relaying information to kids and parents.
“If you can get someone to retweet something, you’ve touched a lot of people with whatever information you need,” Vance said.
Some coaches take a hands-off approach to monitoring players and students. Vance and McGuire follow only a few current players and students, and aren't checking in on those players daily. And the guidelines are simple: don't trash talk and don't be derogatory.
St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Dover, N.H., created a social media guideline for its students-athletes that doesn't restrict student-athletes from using social media but aims to serve as a guide. Still, there are those coaches who would rather avoid the potential pitfalls. Meeboer said one of his fall coaches said at the preseason parents meeting there would be no tweeting after practice and after games.
And coaches agreed they alone can't be the twitter police.
“Parents got to be vigilant and be all over it,” Harshman said.
A lot of the responsibility does fall to parents to police and educate when it comes to social media. But what about kids without a strong home structure? And should all of the education burden fall on the parents?
Maybe part of the reluctance to dive headfirst into social media regulation is the fact Wyoming isn’t overly saturated by social media and most issues -- at least among teenagers -- have been minor. Schools also have policies in place to address digital bullying.
But until schools and school districts start implementing policies and language to educate students and parents on social media use, the issue will lurk in the background as the digital world continues to evolve.
“It's not going away,” Laird said.