How is Social Media Changing Our Schools?

Is social media a powerful educational tool or a dangerous distraction? All over the country, educators are wrestling with that question. So far, there is no consensus. Some schools try to create walled compounds in the hope that it will help students concentrate on their studies. Other schools regard it as their responsibility to teach young people to use the networking tools they are likely to dominate their adult lives.

The downside to social media can be summarized in two words – danger and distraction.  The danger comes both from adult predators and from peers. Social media creates “more opportunities for potential offenders to engage with children,” according to Ernie Allen, CEO of the Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Adult predators often comb social media sites for information about the interests and activities of young people.  Even children who use appropriate privacy settings may be vulnerable if they interact or are tagged in photos on the sites of less conscientious friends.

Schools are also keenly aware that social networks create new opportunities for students to torment their peers. When the National Education Association surveyed teachers about bullying, almost 20% said they were aware of incidents of cyberbullying. Even when cyberbullying originates off-campus, its effects can spill over into school. In many schools, administrators worry that if social media were encouraged or even permitted during the school day, they would incur even more responsibility and perhaps liability for bullying incidents.

Even if students don’t harass each other, many educators regard social media as a distraction that keeps young people from focusing on schoolwork. Dr. Michael Rich, a Harvard researcher who calls himself the Mediatrician, argues that when young people use social media constantly, “their brains are rewarded for not staying on task but for jumping to the next thing.” Other researchers have found that multi-tasking actually slows the ability to master and retain new information.

Technology can also be a distraction for teachers. In several highly publicized cases, teachers have blogged or posted Facebook messages about classroom activities. In Pennsylvania, a teacher was dismissed after she characterized her students as “lazy.”  Because they can anticipate problems that might arise if students or even parents “friend” a teacher, some schools are writing rules about how teachers use social media in their private lives.

On the other side of the fence, a small but growing group of wired educators argue that social media offers remarkable opportunities for communication and collaboration precisely because it commands the attention of young students. Some teachers now believe that schools are missing an opportunity if they don’t teach their students to use social media for something more than making mindless wisecracks and swapping silly videos. One teacher routinely collects student cellphone numbers. If they aren’t in class, she calls to find out why. Other teachers make themselves available online in the evenings so students can ask questions about homework. These wired teachers believe Facebook and other social media allow them to make a more personal connection with students.

Teachers have also found that social media can be a powerful tool for social learning.  Because of the risks built into popular public networks like Facebook, some educators prefer social networks that are designed specifically for the classroom. Kidblog and Edublogs allow students to post and comment on classroom assignments in a secure and private setting. TeacherTube and School Tube are educational variations on YouTube.  And Edmodo is a customized social networking site where teachers can post classroom materials, share videos, access homework and distribute school notices. Students in turn can collaborate on projects even on snow days.

Because educators vary so widely in their approach to social media, parents need to do their own homework. While school districts try to figure out the appropriate role for social media in the classroom, parents must step up to shape the social media experience so what kids learn is constructive. Here are some suggestions.

1. Get involved. It’s hard to understand social media from the sidelines. Even if you can’t spend hours a day doing social networking, set up an account so you can talk knowledgably to your child. If your school or your child’s teacher makes use of social media, friend them and join their groups so you can keep up with what’s being said by and about the school.

2.  Support school policy. Even though the rules may be in flux, all schools have an Acceptable Use Policy for technology. Read it. If you have suggestions or concerns, take them to administrators. Don’t debate the policy with your child. If the school has decided that cellphones are disruptive in the classroom, insist that your child stow the technology during the school day. Kids need to get a consistent message from parents and school personnel about how social media fits into the curriculum.

3. Don’t rush it. Social media requires social sophistication. To use it effectively, kids need to be able to recognize and deflect predators. They also need to have the savvy to manage relationships at different degrees of intimacy. Those skills begin to emerge in middle school. Coincidently, Facebook requires members to be thirteen. Under that age, your child will have to lie to get an account. Rather than encouraging that kind of deception, parents can point younger kids toward social media sites that require parent approval and include some kind of monitoring.

4. Explore alternatives. Most adolescents want to be part of Facebook because it is the most popular of the social networking websites. Still, Facebook isn’t right for everyone.  Just as some adults decide that they prefer to do their social networking on a professional site like LinkedIn, kids may get more out of social media that is tied to a special interest such as music or social issues. Wikipedia maintains a List of Social Networking Websites that will help you point your teen toward networks where relationships revolve around books, films, community service or environmental issues.

5. Start with training wheels. When you think your child is ready for social media, set up an account together. At the beginning, you should approve each addition to the friend list and you should insist on being one of the friends. Follow the same progression you did when your child first started having play dates. Initially, you’ll pay a lot of attention to be sure the friends are suitable and your child is playing nice. As your child demonstrates maturity, you can back away.

6. Teach survival skills. At every age, children need to know how to protect themselves online. Coach your child about how to use privacy tools so profile information is not visible to the general public. Point out how to block and report content that is aggressive or inappropriate. Encourage your child to come to you if they—or others–are threatened or harassed.

7. Expect civility. Like every other online activity, social media can be used in constructive and destructive ways. Be sure your child understands that being online isn’t a license to be disrespectful or cruel. If anything, young people should be more thoughtful about what they say in social media because mean comments or compromising photos linger online. Suggest that your child adopt the time-tested rule: If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.

8. Discuss reputation. What’s said online stays online—forever. Kids often don’t understand that what they do and post in social media settings can easily leak out and become part of a permanent online profile. Even if they remove an impulsive post or an ill-advised photo, someone else may have copied and distributed it. Be sure your child understands that school administrators, college admissions officers and employers (not to mention grandma) routinely use online resources to gather information.

9. Set limits. Social media is available 24/7. Many teenagers actually sleep with their cellphones so they can be available to for tweets, text messages and status updates anytime of the day or night. Parents have to help their kids find balance. Insist that your child disengage regularly from social media to do other important things like finishing chores, having conversations, reading books, getting exercise or just thinking without interruption.

Smart parents have always thought about education as a collaboration between home and school. When your child learned to read, for instance, you supported the teacher’s efforts by reading bedtime stories and playing rhyming games. Taking the time to teach your child to use social media wisely gives your child the same head start. Once your child has mastered these skills, he or she will be able to connect with the constructive potential of social media regardless of the policies the school adopts.

Carolyn Jabs, M.A., has been writing about families and the Internet for over fifteen years.  She is the mother of three computer-savvy kids.  Other Growing Up Online columns appear on her website  

@ Copyright, 2015, Carolyn Jabs.  All rights reserved.