Through a number of professional development opportunities, I've learned that social media can be an extraordinarily powerful tool for research and professional collaboration. I used to have to go to a library, a book store, or do an active web search for a specific topic to find information relevant to my profession. Now, my Twitter account delivers the information to me daily. As a result, I am better prepared to do my job, much better informed in my field, and I am using my time much more efficiently.
Unfortunately, a large number of young people are not using social media in this way. For students today, social media functions primarily as a diary, journal or open forum where they can voice their personal thoughts and ideas. They see their social media behavior as a way for them to express what we used to consider private views, thoughts and ideas. Unfortunately, social media isn't even close to private. As a result, our students are often damaging themselves and others in ways they don't even understand. When confronted with the damage, student will typically say things like, "I didn't mean it that way," or, " It was just a joke." I think it is important for all of us to send the message that when your actions hurt another human being, it does not matter what your intent was or that you thought it was funny.
I am writing about this topic as a way of reaching out to parents, educators, and anyone who works with young people to get involved with social media, know what your students are doing, model good social networking behavior, and teach students about the potential impact of their electronic communication.
If you are a parent, talk to your students about their social media behavior and LOOK AT their sites with them REGULARLY. This is not an invasion of their privacy. If your student asked to be dropped off in the worst possible neighborhood so that they could hang out and talk with a notorious drug dealer, I think most reasonable parents would say no to that and would not consider it an invasion of privacy. The internet and social media make it possible for young people to do exactly what I just described from their bedroom. Monitoring internet and social media activity is not an invasion of privacy, it is a parental responsibility. If students are appropriately monitored and mentored, they will grow to understand the tool and use it in ways that benefit them and those around them. If not, they may make mistakes that are harmful to themselves and, potentially others.
If you don't believe the last statement, just do a web search for "cyber-bullying incidents" and read about some of the recent issues. Students often behave as if what they are doing on-line is "private" between them and their small group of friends. They complain about parents, friends, teachers, the school, and much, much more. They often use horrible, inappropriate language that their parents would never allow in their home or in public. And, because the communication IS NOT private, they often hurt themselves and others. They don't realize that "complaining" on-line can becoming bullying depending on the words and methods you use, especially if others get involved in the conversation. In today's world, bullying can escalate very quickly and it damages everyone involved - the victim, the bully, the bystanders, the community, everyone. You'll find that many, if not most of the cyber-bullying cases that you read about could have been prevented if someone had been actively monitoring and mentoring on-line behavior.
Parents should also become familiar with sites like facebook, twitter, snapchat, and instagram. Make sure that students understand that these sites are public and that the behavior that they engage in on these sites could impact who they are in the eyes of the community. If you've never looked at your student's sites, I encourage you to do so. You may be shocked at what your find in terms of language and content.
Finally, parents should set some rules and guidelines about electronic communication. Here is a sample list:
1. Use appropriate language. Electronic communication is public. Don't say anything on-line that you would not say is a public place.
2. Keep it short. If you are looking for or providing quick information, electronic communication is great. If you want to have a conversation, do it in person or over the phone.
3. Don't argue on-line. This often gets out of hand and causes trouble.
4. No social media while driving - you should focus on driving.
5. No social media at school - you should focus on learning.
6. Be kind.
Social media can be a terrible trap that creates all kinds of trouble in our community, or it can be a powerful tool that enhances our lives. The choice is ours.