Cyber Hitchhiking: Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down?

instragram rideSo what if we told you teens were putting out public pleas for rides via social media? Yep. It’s true. Just when you read Margaret’s latest tech primer and thought you had a handle on how teens are using Twitter, The Today Show aired a segment on “cyber hitchhiking”—a new trend that apparently has kids Tweeting or Instagramming their way from point A to point B. For example:

“I need a ride to the field at 3. Any takers?! :)”

Horrified? Before you freak out and fear for the worst, take a few deep breaths—and consider the story’s likely origin.

See, we first caught wind of this trend from Youth Radio correspondent Bianca Brooks on NPR’s Morning Edition earlier this month, and after hearing her take, we think the term “cyber hitchhiking” might be a tad sensational. In her report, Brooks so eloquently explained the cultural shifts that have led teens to embrace a “sharing economy”—which includes (but is not limited to) soliciting rides via social media:

“The sharing economy got big during the recession, especially among young people. It allows them to use technology to access more goods and services, while also allowing them to share costs. And that technology, for me, is what the car was for my mom: a gateway to more freedom. It's like my friend Earl says: ‘The symbol of freedom isn't the car anymore because there's technology out there that could connect you to a car.’"

Now, while there’s always the potential for stranger danger—a quick search on Twitter for “I need a ride” returns tons of public requests for a lift—most teens are likely using Twitter to connect with real-life peers. (Social media is, let us remind you, replacing one-to-one modes of communication, especially for this native Internet generation.) And for many teens, calling a friend and asking for a ride might feel too aggressive or needy. But requesting one from the masses, on the other hand, passively puts it in the other party’s hands—allowing the ride-seekers to be politely proactive.

Our best advice? Talk to teens to make sure they understand that cyber ridesharing should stay within real-life friend circles; ensure that their Twitter and Facebook settings stay on private; and—for an extra layer of safety—encourage them to never disclose their current location to their followers (friends or not).

What do you think about “cyber hitchhiking?” Is it a potentially useful tool for cash-strapped teens—or just too risky?