Students entering secondary education in the last five years would not have known life before social media. The use of the internet has become an integral part of our lives and, as a result, we are communicating with each other on an unprecedented scale.
This presents both challenges and opportunities. On the one hand, research suggests that the use social media has many benefits: people who are social online tend to be very social offline as well; social media allow us to establish links and connections with like-minded people with whom it would have been otherwise impossible to do so; social media have become an important source of knowledge and information; social media allow us to keep in frequent touch and thus strengthen relationships with friends and family members regardless of distance. Furthermore, research shows that the use of social media is not a substitute for more traditional forms of relationship but rather an extension of them.
However, on the other hand, studies have also shown a link between the misuse of social media and increased levels of anxiety and even depression among young people. Clearly, schools and parents cannot afford to ignore this. So what are we to do?
Is banning the only option?
Most schools go down the path of banning the use of social media during school hours. This has many obvious benefits, not least because it allows pupils to concentrate on their studies free of social media distractions during lessons. Having said that, where many schools — and parents for that matter — go wrong is when they disengage from social media altogether, failing to grasp the important role that social media play beyond school , not only in the private lives of young people, but also in the wider school community and society in general.
One reason why schools and parents may prefer disengaging could be because the prevalent discourse surrounding our use of technology in popular media is littered with threats, warning, fears and concerns, many of which — though not all — are unwarranted and depict an almost certainly dystopian vision of how technology is and will be affecting our lives.
Have we been here before?
Even before Socrates worried that writing — still a new technology in 400 BC — would “create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves”, generations of parents had disapproved of the way young people behave, speak and write. And they still continue to dislike intensely the tools young people use to do so, from comic books to Walkmans, from TV to video-games, from texting to online social networks. Indeed, texting was once the sworn enemy of proper English and literacy. But at a time when we are reading and writing more than ever on all kinds of devices (Ofcom has confirmed that text has overtaken voice in the UK in mobile telephony) the suggestion that reading and writing more will somehow have a negative effect on literacy seems ludicrous.
According to renowned cognitive psychologist Stephen Pinker, “it is a failing of human nature to detest anything that young people do just because older people are not used to it or have trouble learning it.” And so, one of the most worrying aspects of this cultural bias is adults’ propensity to vilify young people and view them as different from us . As if we adults did not feel the need to socialise when we were young, or as if we didn’t bully or were subject to bullying. It may be comforting, though highly inaccurate, to hark back to a time before social media when teenagers didn’t feel anxious about their relationships. As Danah Boyd, principal researcher at Microsoft, puts it “children are not addicted to social media. They’re addicted to each other”.
Others go further and even argue that technology is changing young people’s brains. However, according to leading neuropsychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons the brain’s wiring “is determined by genetic programs and biochemical interactions that do most of their work long before a child discovers Facebook and Twitter.” Yet the concept that the technology is indeed changing brains — in a bad way — continues to be propounded on traditional media channels, as well as, ironically, on social media. But, as Chabris and Simons conclude “there is simply no experimental evidence to show that living with new technologies fundamentally changes brain organisation”.
So it turns out that, as ever, the picture is more complex than sensationalist headlines would have us believe. If the use of social media and life in this 21st century are inextricably linked, how do we best serve the interests of children entering secondary education?
Surely, part of the answer is to not assume that social media is someone else’s problem . Parents of children about to start secondary education ought to take an active interest in what being social in 2015 means and ask their prospective schools these questions:
- Does the school provide children with good role models of appropriate behaviour on social media?
- Does the school have a well maintained social media presence? E.g. does the Head tweet or blog?
- Does the school encourage the use of social media for academic purposes? E.g. is there a Maths department twitter feed? Is there a Geography blog?
- Does the school have a social media policy that sets out, not only how it deals with misuse or abuse, but also how it encourages the appropriate use of social media?
- Does the school behaviour policy include expectations of appropriate behaviour online as well as offline?
Not less importantly, parents ought to ask themselves these questions:
- Am I a good social media role model? E.g. are my Facebook posts or tweets appropriate?
- Do I check social media at the dinner table? Should I be doing that?
- Do I supervise my children’s access to mobile devices or allow them free rein?
- Do I take an interest in my child’s social life online?
- Have I helped my child set up their social accounts or otherwise offered advice?
- Have I ever explained to my children what is appropriate or inappropriate when, for example, leaving a comment on a YouTube video?
From this perspective, education, balance and clear boundaries emerge as the key factors in ensuring that children are able to use social media in a relatively safe, supportive and productive environment . For this to happen both parents and schools need to gain a better understanding about the important role the internet and social media have come to play in our lives and that this bright, colourful and engaging new way of communicating and transmitting information is here to stay.
And let’s not forget that, despite the many dystopian predictions, people have always managed to integrate technology in their lives with overwhelmingly positive results. Sure, there will be challenges as well as opportunities. This is why children need our guidance. Whatever the case, and however schools decide to tackle this, wishing social media went away is probably not the answer.