Sean Whalen tweets. He’ll tweet about the sports he plays or the New England Patriots or TV shows; and when he’s done, the Madison Area Memorial High School senior and basketball player hops on Facebook, or Instagram or Snapchat.

He has a full social media plate. And he understands why many other high school athletes do, too.

“It’s definitely easy for everybody,” Whalen said. “It’s not like it costs you money. Everybody’s got it and it’s just a good way to get yourself out there. With retweeting, you never know where it’ll end up.”

Madison’s Sean Whalen, left, puts up a shot over Richmond defender Zach Small in the first half of a Mountain Valley Conference game earlier this season in Madison. Staff file photo by Michael G. Seamans

It’s a truth promised to every user who has helped social media usage steadily grow among the teenagers playing high school sports. Twitter feeds, Instagram accounts and Facebook profiles continue to be popular outlets for student athletes, as social media goes from being a novelty in the sports landscape to becoming integral.

According to a survey from sciencedaily.com, which was released in April 2017, 76 percent of American teenagers ages 13-17 use Instagram, while 66 percent of teens use Facebook.

It’s a notion that both intrigues and concerns coaches and officials running the programs for which they play, who revel in the positives of a social media world while looking for ways to combat the negative. The increasing use of social media among student-athletes also is prompting local and state sports officials to adopt new guidelines or policies.

“There’s probably some good fun that can be had in there, but I think inevitably people end up crossing lines and you have to deal with it,” said Skowhegan athletic director Jon Christopher.

Most don’t. Ask Cony junior Reed Hopkins, who skates on the Cony/Hall-Dale/Monmouth hockey team and is a frequent Instagram and Facebook user.

“I’d say the majority of high school athletes are on it,” he said. ” Not all of them, but I’d say most of them are and use it actively. … A lot of athletes now are using it, just to talk to other kids from other teams and sometimes talk about the competition aspect of it.”

Whalen typically is retweeting sports insight or posting videos of some of his football highlights.

Gardiner’s Mikayla Bourassa (3) shoots between Messalonskee defenders Makayla Wilson, left, and Lydia Dexter during a game last season in Gardiner. Staff file photo by Joe Phelan

Gardiner basketball player Mikayla Bourassa looks on Twitter for updates on local sports scores. Messalonskee basketball player Emily Parent chats with teammates on Facebook or posts articles about her Eagles teams. The majority are like them, using the vast reach of social media to build and maintain relationships and friendships, rather than start issues that could turn into problems and controversy.

“I wouldn’t say kids use social media like that, really,” Parent said. “There’s trash-talking or things that happen like that, but it’s not as common as you’d think.”

When mistakes do happen, however, they prove costly. Patrick Welch, a player on the Pembroke Academy basketball team in New Hampshire, was stripped of his player of the year award in 2014 after dropping the “F” word in a tweet mocking the team his squad had beat in the state championship. April Gehl, a basketball player at Hilbert High School in Wisconsin, received a five-game ban in 2016 for profanely criticizing the state’s athletic administration. Tyson Leon, a football player and wrestler at Shakopee High School in Minnesota, got suspended in 2013 after a tweet was believed to have violent implications.

Maine schools largely have avoided such controversy, but their athletic directors are still wary of the risks of the ever-growing medium.

“I think it’s, really, the last few years where people are starting to get on board,” Brunswick athletic director Jeff Ramich said, “(and) make sure that it’s used in a positive aspect.”

“It’s always a concern because it’s so easy to do,” Messalonskee athletic director Tom Hill added. “You can throw something out there. You’re not talking to anybody about it; it’s just your thoughts.”

POLICIES ON THE RISE

Curbing any regrettable pictures or posts won’t be easy, if it’s even possible.

“People might post something that they even regret the next morning. But you can’t take it back. You might be able to take it down, but you can’t take it back,” said Christopher, the Skowhegan athletic director. “(It’s) an impossible thing to police that I think is the frustration for everybody, because people can do it from everywhere.”

Nevertheless, schools are trying. While the Maine Principals’ Association doesn’t have a set protocol for handling inappropriate posts, some schools have started to implement specific policies governing what is acceptable to put online and disciplinary procedures for any infractions, according to assistant executive director Michael Bisson.

Brunswick High School has a social media agreement in its athletic code, ordering athletes to be positive and refrain from any attacks online. Winthrop High School also has a specific social media policy, one that explains how to report an inappropriate post and the punishments that can be handed down, which can include two-week suspensions and removal from the team depending on the severity of the wrongdoing.

“To track it becomes very difficult, which is why the policies come into play,” said Winthrop athletic director Joel Stoneton, who acknowledged that the school has had to respond to offensive posts already. “We try to be extremely proactive rather than reactive.”

Even schools without policies have started to bring up social media and the risks involved in inappropriate posts. Athletic directors make it an official part of their season-opening coaches meetings, and coaches send the message down to the players.

“Coaches are definitely the ones to warn us,” Gardiner’s Bourassa said, “because they’re the ones who will possibly lose their athletes because of it.”

Even at schools without policies, administrators feel the practice of adding one is spreading.

“I’m sure it’s coming,” Christopher said. “There’s so much of it, and there are so many social media avenues that you can take.”

COSTING COLLEGE

 

Jill Whynot has a goal for her Twitter account. Keep it light, and keep it funny.

“I’m mostly a ‘post funny stuff and make people laugh’ type of person,” the senior and Hall-Dale basketball player said.

Don’t expect anything inflammatory or insensitive. The risks, Whynot said, are just too high.

“I’m a senior, so colleges are going to come back and look at this stuff,” she said. “That’s my biggest thing right now. I’m even telling my friends that, too, ‘Be careful what you post on social media.’ You never know what can happen.”

She’s right — particularly when it comes to athletes with college aspirations. College coaches, when interested in an athlete, often check their targets’ profiles, looking for posts reflecting good character — as well as, in University of Maine Farmington women’s basketball coach Jamie Beaudoin’s words, the “impulse tweets” that raise red flags.

“I do think it’s an important thing for high school students to understand,” he said. “Not only could your college experience come into play, but also a job down the line could come into play with something you posted on social media.”

Coaches take it seriously, and some admitted that they have stopped pursuing a player based solely on their social media use.

“If we see something that’s a little suspicious or something we don’t like, we just cross that person’s name off the list,” University of Southern Maine men’s hockey coach Ed Harding said.

“There have been a number of times where I’ve seen an individual posting about drugs or drinking at parties or they’re using swear words online,” Thomas College men’s basketball coach Geoff Hensley said. “My interest goes down immediately when I see that.”

That’s not to say coaches frown upon tweets, status updates and posted photos. Instead, social media becomes an asset for athletes who behave responsibly in a forum in which it is easy not to do so.

“We try to promote our athletes to be individuals,” Harding said. “It’s just like in society. If you have something good to say, great, say it.”

Brasher posts can get more attention, however. And sometimes, athletes just can’t resist.

“Unfortunately, because people are exposed to a lot of social media at a young age, it becomes sort of an addiction to get any sort of attention or get that ‘ding’ on your phone,” USM women’s basketball coach Samantha Allen said. “That little vibrate that means ‘We’re paying attention to you.’”

Parents snap photos of student athletes Feb. 9, including Nokomis High School’s Quinton Richards, far right, who is holding his title for the 152- pound weight class in the Class A North Regional Champioships at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School in South Paris. Nokomis High School won the team title in points. Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

A POSITIVE TOOL

As big a part of the high school sports scene as social media has become, those involved say they’re still figuring out its role.

“I think it’s ongoing and changing over and over, really,” Christopher said. “The more it exists, the more it becomes commonplace, the more people will start using it.”

For all the potential negatives, administrators embrace social media for all of its actual positives. Scores have never been easier to track down and share. Cancellations and postponements have never been easier to announce. It never has been easier for schools to promote their athletes’ accomplishments.

“It’s a one-touch thing for everybody,” said Gardiner athletic director Steve Ouellette, himself a Twitter user. “If people get in the habit of going to those places, you get all that information. It doesn’t reach everybody, but it does reach a lot more and it’s better than it used to be.”

The athletes see the benefits just as clearly.

“I think student-athletes (like) being able to use social media to express themselves and show off their team and just be proud of their team, and show their accomplishments and stuff,” said Parent, the Messalonskee junior. “They like using it as a positive platform.”

As for the athletes who stray from that approach, there are different reasons at play. They may not know the risks. Or they may ignore them.

“Most kids know the risks of social media, but sometimes they want to ignore them and be like ‘that doesn’t matter,’” Parent said. “They know that they really shouldn’t post it, but they’re just like ‘I want to trash talk this other team and hype up how good we are, so I’m still going to post it anyway.’”

Even the players who know to steer clear of such trouble admit it can take some effort. Parent said she’ll wait an hour or so after a game before going on to keep emotions out of it. And Cony’s Hopkins said he’s caught himself before adding a caption to an Instagram photo that he knew he’d ultimately regret.

“Nothing that bad, but I thought ‘too risky,’ I guess,” he said. “You just don’t want to put anything stupid out there. Because it will come back.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

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Twitter: @dbonifantMTM