By Laura Tierney
Students are spending an average nine hours each day on their screens, according to Common Sense Media, and social media has become one of the greatest influences on our children’s happiness, health, safety, and future success, according to other reports. Many of the parents and school leaders I’ve talked with initially just wanted social media to go away, but now that it’s here to stay, some adults and students are beginning to see it as a powerful and positive tool.
According to The Social Institute’s 2017–2018 Social Media Survey with nearly 4,450 students from independent schools, more than 80 percent of fifth- through 12th-graders said they believed that social media can have a positive impact on their world, whether that means their school or local community, state, or country.
This is why many independent schools are adopting a proactive, growth-minded, and sustainable approach that empowers students, parents, and educators to positively navigate social media. They strengthen their reputations, protect their privacy, follow positive role models, and more. This new approach better aligns with a school’s mission and values, supporting students’ health and wellness. The future of social media is bright, and it’s one where we empower and equip, rather than scare and restrict.
The Current Landscape for Schools
Since social media really took off 10 years ago, few institutions or parents have found a relevant, effective solution to helping kids navigate the world of posts, texts, and selfies. Why? There are three current issues at play: what schools teach about social media, who teaches it, and how it’s taught.
Schools continue to approach social media education as a matter of digital citizenship. Common Sense Media defines digital citizenship as the ability to “think critically, behave safely, and participate responsibly in our digital world.”
We all want students to have digital skills, but telling students to use “digital citizenship” when using technology is like telling them to use “proper navigation” when driving a car. In the world of social media, relevance is everything, and “digital citizenship” is simply not relevant.
Furthermore, most schools use a top-down approach in which adults teach students. Of course, this happens for nearly every school subject, why not social media? The problem again lies with relevance.
According to the 2017–2018 Social Media Survey, 100 percent of students said they believed they know more about social media than their parents or school faculty. How are schools and parents supposed to teach something teens believe they know better (and likely do)?
Lastly, digital citizenship is often taught by adults strictly through “don’ts.” Don’t post this, and don’t share that. Don’t join that app, and don’t post anything you wouldn’t want your grandmother to see. However, imagine if a coach only taught how not to throw a ball or how not to shoot it. Players wouldn’t know what to do. Students are not being taught what to do on social media.
This relevance-lacking, top-down, don’ts-driven approach is failing our students. Students are progressing through school unequipped to navigate life with a phone in their hand. They are overwhelmed by the pressures of cyberbullying. They are being rejected by colleges because of racist Facebook posts. Sleep deprivation among teens is rising because they can’t put their phones away at night. Nude photos of teens are shared around school. Tweens are committing suicide because they’re cyberbullied.
As long as students feel like they are being lectured, they will tune out. They will fall victim to the same landmines, and this negative cycle will continue, potentially tarnishing the reputation of both students
The Future of Social Media Education
We must refine social media education with a positive and proactive approach. The Social Institute works with several independent schools to implement such an approach and empowers students, parents, and faculty. We are halfway through a three-year strategic partnership with Ravenscroft School (NC) and have learned four best practices.
Integrate the curriculum. Rather than putting “digital citizenship” in a corner, Ravenscroft integrates social media life skills into its school’s advisory program, which encourages character development, health, and wellness. The school weaves lessons throughout its advisory program, which promotes “leading self,”
“leading with others,” and “changing your world.”
Students learn to have their social media profiles represent their true self and character. They learn to use empathy when engaging with and posting about others. And because social media is a student’s microphone to the world, sixth- through 12th-grade students learn how to use platforms to spark positive change. The program resonates with students because it supports their belief that there is no distinction between your “real self”
and “digital self.” It’s simply “you” and your ability to have high integrity and character—with or without a device in your hand.
Use a bottom-up approach. Rather than using a top-down approach, in which students are lectured by adults, Ravenscroft students co-lead the program. Student focus groups help develop materials and lesson plans, ensuring they are most relevant to the apps and behaviors students witness online. It’s effective because younger students admire the older student-leaders, and student-leaders help set the standard around social media use at the school. With a train-the-trainer approach, Ravenscroft’s 11th- and 12th-grade student-leaders are now learning to teach sixth- through 10th-grade students, parents, and faculty about positive social media use. It’s a team approach.
Focus on the do’s. Rather than harping “don’t do this” and “don’t share that,” we have found that reinforcing the actions to take allows students to strengthen their reputations, better handle the challenges, and change their worlds for the better. In Ravenscroft’s #WinAtSocial program, students learn seven Social Standards—including “protect your privacy like you’re famous,” and “use your mic for good.” (See “Gold Standards,” below.)
Assemble a cross-departmental team. The power of social media impacts nearly every administrative department. Susan Perry, Ravenscroft’s assistant head of school for student affairs, says, “Our students and parents have longed for a sustained, systemic message about how to connect conversations and educate about technology and social media. Our work with our faculty, students, and parents allows us to have an ongoing, supportive, and educational dialogue about how to leverage social media for respectful outcomes. We feel our commitment to community health must include such a systemic educational approach to understanding the potential positive impact social media can bring.”
How We Get There
As one of the most powerful influences on a child being happy, healthy, and successful, social media needs to be a priority. Schools have the opportunity to get ahead of the game. It starts with administration teams determining why it’s a priority and championing a holistic approach to educating students, parents, and faculty. The upfront work is hard, but the impact is remarkable—these are lifelong skills that students require.
Once schools make the commitment, there will be less helicoptering and more huddling. Less fear and more trust. Less bullying and more empathy. Fewer fire drills and more high-fives. Less negativity and more positivity. The future of social media education is bright, and it’s one where students are empowered and hold one another to high standards, whether online or off. ▪
How does your school teach students, parents, and faculty about social media? Tell us on Twitter at @NAISnetwork.