“Social” Studies

The Social Institute has a revolutionary message about your kids’ social media apps and platforms: They’re the tools for teen success. 

Text by Kurt Dusterberg


Laura Tierney remembers coming of age in the early days of social media. As a student-athlete at Duke University from 2005 to 2009, she listened to the standard lectures about the dangers of texting, tweeting, and posting. All the while, she wondered if people were missing the point. “You have this incredible, premiere university that would bring in people to lecture you on how negative social media could be,” says Tierney, a four-time all-America selection in field hockey. “You weren’t getting proper training at all through high school and college.”

Today, she is doing something about that. Tierney is the founder of The Social Institute, a business focused on helping students navigate social media and technology in a positive manner. Based in Durham, The Social Institute has implemented programs at schools across the country and throughout the Triangle, including Cary Academy, St. Timothy’s School, and Ravenscroft School. 

Tierney was inspired to build the company after seeing how social media helped launch her own career in marketing and advertising. “I got three out of my four jobs thanks to social media,” she says. “I follow so many mentors on social media. I was seeing it as this force for good in our lives, but no one was coaching you on how to use it positively.”

The Social Institute’s curriculum is implemented with a student-led, “gamified” approach. Tierney meets with high school upperclassmen (or eighth graders when visiting a middle school) at the start of the program, knowing that younger students are willing to learn from the older students. She also works with educators on each campus visit to learn about the school’s social media habits. Finally, Tierney meets with parents to counsel them on apps that are trending and behaviors that are emerging with certain age groups. “It’s a more complex world today,” she says. “There are more apps, there’s more functionality, there are more people that you’re connected with than I was 10 years ago. The stakes are higher than ever. It’s equally important that parents are educated so they can reinforce high-character behaviors and habits at home.”

While the potential remains for teens to make poor choices, Tierney’s message is simple: Social media is a tool for success. Used properly, students can leave an impression on colleges and potential employers, as well as cultivate relationships with mentors. “It’s an opportunity to be on one of the biggest stages in the world,” she says. “Potentially millions of people can see what you’re sharing with the power of a screen shot. If you’re on that big stage, you have to make high-character choices and act in ways that represent your values, because there are so many
people watching you.”

For the most part, her pitch is not a hard sell. “I do think students are optimistic and growth-minded [about] how social media can be used,” she says. “That doesn’t mean they have been trained to use it that way. They need to see more and more of the positive side of it. I don’t think kids are wired to use this negatively. They’re using it negatively because, No. 1, they weren’t coached to use it positively, and No. 2, more often than not, they’re surrounded by negative use so they are tempted to swim with the stream. That’s what we’re trying to change.”

Tierney finds that students are usually engaged in the topic. She hears the same questions from students: “When should I make my profile public? How can I better control my Google search results? Is it okay that I’m posting photos of myself in a bikini?” 

A cynic might say those questions are aimed at hiding previous lapses in judgment, but they also show that teens are aware of what is at stake. Tierney tries not to judge what content crosses the line, but instead teaches students to be aware that the line exists. “Whether you like it or not, how you portray yourself is going to influence other people’s perception of you,” she says. “Everyone has a different spectrum of what’s okay and what’s not okay. We’re not going to tell them that posting a photo in a bikini is bad. I don’t think it’s bad. It’s making them aware of what their spectrum is and making them make the decision, not us.”

Tierney believes the key to good decision-making is thinking about the future. “By using social media positively today, you’re setting a high standard for someone else in the world who is going to learn from you,” she says. “Do things today that your future self will thank you for five years from now.”

laura tierney, founder of the social institute, coaches high school upperclassmen on how to navigate social media and technology in a positive manner. photo courtesy of the social institute

laura tierney, founder of the social institute, coaches high school upperclassmen on how to navigate social media and technology in a positive manner.
photo courtesy of the social institute

Set Standards For Your Social Media Presence:

The Social Institute’s curriculum teaches seven social standards that allow students to navigate social media productively. Here are three examples:

• Play to your core. “Click send on things that represent your character and core values. Anything you click ‘send’ on represents your core values and character, and ultimately your reputation.”

• Build a strong team around you. “Who are you following in your feed that encourages you to be the best version of yourself, who raises the bar for you each day? Induct some of those people into your feed if you don’t have them already.”

• Handle the pressure. “There is a lot of social pressure that comes with technology. It’s important to handle that and navigate those scenarios positively. You’re not giving into pressure to get the highest number of likes, and therefore you don’t post a photo that forever tarnishes your reputation.”