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Supporting Student Social Media Use, Safely

February 03, 2016

I was exchanging pleasantries with a fellow skier on a chairlift this weekend. He was on ski patrol on the mountain and is about the same age as I am. The conversation turned to what I do for a living. I explained that I was a middle and high school history teacher, but now I help teachers at my school use technology to create engaging learning experiences for their students that are more like what professionals do.

His reaction was interesting. He said, “Aren’t you glad that all of this technology and social media wasn’t around when we were in school? At least we know we didn’t plaster some big teenager mistake out there for the world to see.”

I know many adults feel the same way. Educators and parents are worried about what information their students and children are sharing online. How might that information be interpreted by others later? How might it affect their personal and professional adult lives?

I responded, “Social media can be a blessing and a curse. We need to work with kids so it is used in a positive way. That is the focus of a lot of my work.” My new friend looked at me as if to say, “Good luck with that!”

We got off the lift at the summit and bid one another a good day. As I skied off it occurred to me that a lot of educators and parents could use some guidance on how to get the discussion going with their middle and high school age children. I am an educator and parent and understand the importance of each role. As a teacher and digital learning specialist I have experience working with teens to develop realistic goals for technology and social media use.

Here are 2 tips for schools and 2 tips for parents.

School Tip #1: Give Students Voice

Schools all over the country are revising their responsible use policies as education technology tools and resources seem to grow every day. At the same time our students seem to move on to the next social network faster than we can get to know the last one. Once obvious way to keep up is to include students in the discussions and revisions.

One way to start this dialogue at your school is to participate in Safer Internet Day on February 9. There will be a live stream of the event, which includes a panel of impressive teens – each of whom has founded or helps run an Internet safety organization – sharing their experience and expertise for “Rejecting Hate, Building Resilience, and Growing the Good Online.” Want to continue the powerful discussion with your students at your school? The folks at ConnectSafely put together 8 questions to give you a jump start. Including students in the solutions will build positive community and culture around technology use at your school.

School Tip #2: Support Over Discipline

Kids will make mistakes both in person and online. They need to deal with consequences, of course. But school counselors, coaches, teachers, and administrators are more likely to help students develop a healthy digital identity if they offer support when students make mistakes. No single error in judgement should mean the end of a child’s academic, athletic, or artistic success and development.

When educators are proactive about integrating digital citizenship in school, it is easier to counsel teens who make mistakes. Coach them to drown out the negative with the positive so their digital tattoo – the permanent record of their digital identity – is one they can be proud to show. Build a support team that includes digital learning specialists, school counselors, teachers, and administrators who can circle the wagons and support kids who make mistakes. I’ve been a part of meetings with 7th and 8th grade students who have posted inappropriately on Instagram or Facebook, for instance, and because our middle school has a full blown digital citizenship curriculuml, the students immediately understood what the mistake was and were brainstorming with the adults how to move forward in a positive way.

Parent Tip #1: Have Relaxed but Realistic Conversations

Create an agreement about tech use before giving your child a device. Look at Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat together. As you scroll through on your phone or your child’s phone, talk about what you see. Laugh together at the posts that are genuinely funny. Ask your teen what he thinks about posts that cross the lines of politeness, sexuality, racism, and intolerance. Talk to him about how acquaintances or new friends might think of a person if they saw that post. What about an admissions officer or employer who is researching an applicant?

Then have your teen think about what he has posted on his social media accounts. It is important to avoid causing panic if he has made a mistake. Encourage him to take down posts he regrets and then to move forward with a more positive pattern. No one expects every social media account to be squeaky clean, but teens should make a concerted effort to put out a positive digital identity as much as possible.

Practical parenting tips are available from experts, like Denise Lisi DeRosa, who have studied family technology use. Read up on them and figure out the right balance of tech for your child and your family.

Parent Tip #2: Model with Your Digital Identity

Before posting a picture of your teen, or typing and publishing an update about something funny she said or did, show it to her. Ask her if she is OK with the post. Tell your teen to do the same for others before she posts. Also, encourage your teen to follow you, and insist that you are able to follow her back on social media. She may roll her eyes, but she will also pay attention to what you post and how you create your digital identity.

Think carefully about when you are looking at your devices and when you are engaging with your teen. Adults who do business – with email, calendar notifications, and text messaging – on their phones can easily lose sight of keeping phones away from the dinner table or out of sight during family time. It is hard to hold teens to a standard of digital etiquette that we struggle with ourselves. When we do make mistakes, it is important to admit to them, talk about them, and work toward improvement together with our children.

When parents model positive behavior around devices and social media, a healthy continuing conversation about Internet safety can be a normal part of that parent child relationship.

I wish I could have eased my new friend’s anxieties with this information before our chairlift ride ended. Alas, we reached the summit too quickly. However, when it comes to the explosion of technology and media we are facing, I’m sure we haven’t peaked just yet. If schools or parents attempt to avoid these topics because they are not comfortable with them, or if they try to prohibit children from using tech and social media tools, our children will continue to use them without guidance or coaching. There aren’t easy answers, be working with our kids is a step in the right direction.

Kerry Gallagher is a Technology Integration Specialist in Massachusetts, and a PBS LearningMedia Digital Innovator