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Last Updated On: December 17th, 2021

By now every parent and educator has heard horror stories about the dangers of social media for children. Between disruptive Tik Tok challenges, bullying, and the recent reports on the impact of social media on teens’ mental health, it’s enough for parents to wish that social media simply would go away. Unfortunately, the genie is out of the bottle. Kids are going to have access to social media, and the best response for both parents and educators isn’t to stick our heads in the sand, or to get swept up in moral panics about Tik Toks that may not even exist. Instead, we should be proactive in our choices and messaging, adequately warn teens about potential risks associated with social media, and take advantage of the positive capabilities of social media to provide better alternatives for teens.

Proactive messaging

One way parents and educators can obviate some of the potential issues with social media is by being proactive. We know kids will be exposed to both the good and bad of social media, so before the problems even arise it’s best to have a plan in place and present better alternatives. This might mean a frank conversation with your teen about the potential pitfalls of Instagram, or it might mean a codified school policy about online bullying. Schools should also present positive social media outlets for teens. Students want to interact online and they want to create and share content. Schools should take advantage of these impulses by creating positive, constructive opportunities for teens to participate online. That might mean a Tik Tok competition linked to a school science fair, or a constructive hashtag campaign. Kids should also be encouraged to pursue constructive interests through their social media. Maybe that means helping to raise money for charity through a viral challenge or following local politics online, or maybe it just means following their favorite athlete on Facebook.

Install Age-Appropriate Safeguards and Have Necessary Conversations Early

The appropriate amount of social media access will of course vary by age. Younger students should be kept off social media entirely, and middle schoolers should have some limitations on access, at least in school settings or on school devices. For older students, abstinence or parental locks may not be practical, but some amount of moderation on school devices is imperative. Furthermore, schools should know that there are a myriad ways social media can interfere with learning. From Tik Tok campaigns encouraging the stealing of school soaps to, less benignly, online bullying or social media-induced mental health issues. The fact is, some issues will come up. Schools should have policies in place, give students safe outlets to complain about misbehavior or seek help, and give students guidance about how to stay safe and productive online. The time to have an assembly about keeping personal information safe on social media is before there is an issue, not afterwards.

Similarly, we taught a student whose entire grade faced detention after there was rampant misuse of Snapchat on school-issued tablets. Our student hadn’t had the app on his tablet, but was still forced to attend a schoolwide meeting and stay after school. While schools can and should crack down on inappropriate content on school devices, the entire issue could have been avoided simply by preventing students from downloading Snapchat (an app with no real potential educational value) in the first place.

Likewise, parents should maintain an open dialogue about the issues and dangers their child may face online. Younger students will be exposed to social media earlier than parents might like (even if they aren’t permitted their own smartphone or accounts, they will be exposed through their peers), so have conversations earlier than you might think. As we said above, getting ahead of the problems is key. While older students should not have their social media monitored, they can be warned about what they should and shouldn’t post online for safety issues, or be aware of the impact online content can have. Relevant incidents in school or news articles can become teachable moments or openings for discussions with your child.

Remote Learning’s Impact on Social Media Consumption and Importance

As many students were educated remotely over the past two years (and a significant number may still not have returned to in-person learning), students spent more and more of their educational lives on devices. While this was necessary for safety and social distancing, and did create some opportunities for self-paced learning, it did mean that students had more opportunities to spend time on social media or conduct more of their lives online. This meant more potential interaction with some of the dangers of social media, but it also meant more opportunities for positive uses of social media. We saw study groups conducted over Facebook and school spirit maintained via hashtag in the absence of homecoming games. The main lessons to take away from this period, with regard to social media, that we saw were:

1) Moderation:
The students who had the most positive experiences with social media that we worked with maintained creative or social outlets that were not dictated by social media, and limited their screen time outside of class. This was achieved by schools providing assignments that required offline learning (such as nature observation for a biology class, or a socially-distanced outdoor band rehearsal), and by students who made conscious efforts to keep up with friends and hobbies in offline settings.

2) Maintaining Creativity:
Schools that looked for outside-the-box uses of social media connections during remote learning had some real success with our students. Students were more willing to respond to a school Facebook campaign if it was fun and creative, and if that campaign was another way for teachers to stay in touch with students they were no longer seeing in the classroom, then so much the better.

Keeping things in perspective:

Finally, after introducing all these potential social media pitfalls, and giving all these prescriptive directions for schools and parents to ward off these ills, we want to offer a little perspective. It is important to remember that, while the details of these social media issues, and their potential solutions are new, the problems at the root of them are not. Students acting up in school, expressing themselves in ways that they might regret, or even bullying are not new. They were issues pre-internet and they would be issues even if schools could put that genie back in the bottle and keep all technology out of the classroom. There are problems created by social media, and there are things schools need to be aware of or warn students about, but overall their approach to student behavior and safety should not be a wholesale departure from the educational responsibilities of institutions in the age before social media.

Similarly, while parents might wish their child spent more time studying and less time on Instagram, they would be wise to remember that a generation ago their child might have been misbehaving in some other, riskier way instead. In general, students are safer by nearly every metric than they were pre-internet, be it from crime or from automobile accidents. While the issues facing your child may seem wildly different (and more intimidating) than those you faced at their age, in many ways they are less grave.

Nearly every new technology has changed the lives of young people first, (as they tend to be early adopters), and nearly every technology has inspired a moral panic from older generations. Before going all doom and gloom about social media, remember that there were similar fears about phones, post offices, and bicycles, and similarly ill-founded concerns about the ruinous educational impacts of comic books and television, two inventions which somehow managed to achieve wild popularity without causing literacy rates to plummet. Parents and schools should maintain the focus they always had: the social and emotional well-being of the children in their care and allowing them to achieve their fullest academic potential. This means a rigorous academic curriculum, adequate college prep, and making sure they have somewhere to turn if they have a problem. It doesn’t mean ignoring social media, but it does mean realizing that it’s not the most important factor in their child’s success later in life.

Photo by Katerina Holmes from Pexels

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