Social Media in Schools: Be the Owl, Not the Ostrich

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Possibly no topic in #edtech invokes as much fear in parents or teachers as social media. This is understandable. Research has shown that by middle school, the majority of students are using social media, but lack the maturity to use it appropriately. Their unsafe behavior might take the form of sharing too much personal information, engaging in or being the victim of cyberbullying, or sacrificing family time, schoolwork, or fresh air in order to socialize online.

However, the answer to this challenge is not for schools to go into a digital lockdown mode, to block every known site that enables students to communicate with one another and to direct teachers to avoid social media like the plague. This strategy is bound to fail for a number of reasons. First, though it does make sense to block access to anonymous chatting platforms like ask.fm and chat roulette, it is impossible to block every social media site out there. For every site that we discover as a school system, developers are out there creating two more and students are finding them. Second, hindering access to known sites will push students to find others that are less well-known and more likely to attract unsavory characters. Third, students will quickly discover that basic productivity sites such as Google docs can be used to chat – by sharing a document and working on it at the same time. Basically, blocking “everything” and sticking our heads in the sand won’t work.

So, what should schools do about social media?  I recommend the three Es of schools and social media: embrace, educate, and empower.

1)   Embrace social media as a school resource. Create a school Facebook page, get administrators on Twitter, start sharing photos via Instagram. What will this do? It will remove the forbidden and mysterious label that often entices to students to engage in dangerous behavior online. It will also make social media part of the regular academic conversation in the community.

2)   Educate students about the benefits and potential pitfalls of social media. Rather than the duck and cover, make social media part of the curriculum. Give students opportunities to use social media in a structured and supervised environment and to understand its dangers – and to make mistakes where they can be addressed immediately.

3)   Empower students to use appropriate collaboration platforms to participate in meaningful discussions with other students. Kids love to chat, to connect online, to express themselves in a way that is only possible in a digital environment. Make online engagement a regular classroom activity and satisfy students’ need for interactivity.

The fact is that social media is here to stay and kids are going to use it. Channeling the ostrich and putting our heads in the sand will not help anyone. The alternative is to be the owl, to find wise uses of social media that guide students in the right direction.

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