Your Students Love Social Media ... and So Can You

Last spring, a New Jersey middle school principal saw a rise in bullying at his school. Students were spreading rumors and gossip online, hiding behind anonymous screen names and profiles. What was worse, the principal said, his school’s guidance counselor was spending the majority of her day dealing with the emotional fallout.

The principal had had enough. He emailed a letter to parents, asking them to forbid their children from participating on any social networking sites. Experts say the principal’s frustration was understandable—but his solution was simply not practical.

A recent Pew Research Center report shows that 73 percent of teens between the ages of 12 and 17 use social networking, up from 55 percent just four years ago. Numbers are greatest among high school girls, who tend to use social media as a way to socialize and strengthen relationships.

Facebook and, to a lesser degree, MySpace are the major social networking sites of choice. But teens also use social media when they text on cell phones, play online games and interact with others through online forums and membership sites. In the last five years, social networking has become ubiquitous.

Some of the concern about social media is warranted. Parents should be more knowledgeable about their children’s online activity, and cyberbullying can be painfully vicious.

But others say social media is here to stay, and rather than shielding children from it and admonishing them for using it, educators should support these social networks.

Pam Rutledge, a psychologist and director of the Media Psychology Resource Center, says adult fear of new technology is not new. There were similar concerns when television was introduced.

“From my perspective, this new technology is all a very positive thing. Social media has totally changed the communication model,” Rutledge says. “This is so empowering.”

That’s especially true for teens in their search for affirmation. Teens still engage in traditional behaviors, like talking on the phone for hours and trolling the mall with their friends. But Rutledge says social media provides a new way for them to construct their identities.

“It’s fundamental for teens to want to feel empowered, to have a sense of individual agency, a willingness to learn, to produce,” she says. “To spend all their time making their Facebook page cute allows them to exercise control over their domain and their identity.”

Social Boundaries Translate Online
Social media researcher Danah Boyd is a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and author of “Why Youth (Heart) Social Network Sites: The Role of Networked Publics in Teenage Social Life.” She says social networking has become part of social learning. In these contexts, teens learn how status in a social group works and how information flows through a community—skills they will need in adult life.

However, while teens can hone their social skills online, technical skills vary according to household income. There is “an unfortunate assumption that since they’re young and they grew up with it, they know how to use it,” says Eszter Hargittai, an associate communications and sociology professor at Northwestern University. “We do them a disservice by going into the classroom and assuming they are already digitally savvy.”

In studying the next generation of Internet users, Hargittai found that “students who come from families with lower economic status and less  education know the Internet less than those with a privileged background, therefore they are less likely to reap the benefits.”

Differences in how students use social media are manifest in other ways, but all agree that existing social boundaries translate online. Most teens are networking with peers they already know—kids a lot like themselves.

Rutledge understands parent fears about privacy, cyberbullying and online safety, but she also understands teenage behavior and the significance of social networks.

“People connect—that’s what we do,” says Rutledge. “That’s a biological function, not an aberration. The desire to grow up and do these adult things overrides caution. It’s not pathological. It’s normal teen behavior.”

A Healthy Dose of Social Media
Sometimes it’s hard for parents and educators to understand what healthy online behavior is. Social media can provide an opportunity for teens and adults to gain media literacy.

“I think it is incumbent upon schools to teach smart digital citizenship,” says Christopher Lehmann, principal of Science Leadership Academy (SLA), a 6-year-old Philadelphia charter school. “One way to model digital citizenship is to be there [online] and let yourself be seen as part of that world. It also helps them navigate that space.”

Lehmann’s embrace of technology led to him being named one of the “30 most influential people in EdTech” by Technology and Learning magazine. Lehmann is a frequent blogger and maintains a Facebook and Twitter presence. (He only “friends” students who “friend” him first.)

Part of SLA’s social media strategy is parent education. Lehmann says the response he receives from parents runs the gamut. “Some are unbelievably fearful, others are fully invested in it.

“Social media is part of kids’ lives,” he adds. “Either we acknowledge it exists and allow ourselves to be part of the conversation, or it’s one more way school becomes irrelevant to kids. Any tool is a weapon if you hold it right.”

Lehmann believes “being online in 2011 is part of living a healthy life. Let kids see us use it in a healthy way.”

Tweet Away Anxiety
Some researchers are finding that social media in the classroom can have positive psychological effects.

Erica Robles, an assistant professor of media and communication at New York University discovered that when students were asked to answer questions using Twitter, they felt less pressure, even if the answer was incorrect.

“Social media allows teachers to manage social anxiety and create a safe learning environment where everybody learns,” says Robles. “We have only just begun to scratch the surface on the architectural design of the classroom, or the physical layout of information. We’re learning that you can go beyond the curriculum to communicate the same content across laptops. It might not be the best place to show collaboration, but it gives students control. Small choices can have implications psychologically.”

David Bill, a former middle school teacher, used social media as a teaching tool in his classroom to help students “learn from experts around the globe as well as teachers down the hall.

“I wanted them to see how it could extend and simplify their learning,” says Bill, who is now the online community manager for New Tech Network, an organization that helps create project-based learning schools. “I think it is important for educators to understand our students and try to meet them halfway. To ignore how our students learn and operate would only push them away from enjoying the process of learning.”

‘Friend’ Me
Rutledge encourages adults to ask teens about their online interests. If a student is absorbed by online gaming, play with her. If another is glued to Facebook, ask him about the attraction without being judgmental. 

“I have a nephew who, in high school, was painfully shy,” says Rutledge. “He told me the reason he liked Facebook was because he liked to think before responding immediately. He found he could cultivate friendships that were much deeper.”

She says casting judgment makes kids become instantly defensive.

“They are still forming their sense of self, so they are not very secure. They are still experimenting with who they are. They get defensive because they are just trying to build their identity and may not yet be where you want them to be,” explains Rutledge. “What you don’t want is for them to firm up that boundary while they are still fluid. If you attack them you slow that process down and get them to defend something when they are still in transition.”

Lehmann discovered that when students are trusted, they monitored themselves and learned from each other naturally. Not long ago, someone at Science Learning Academy started a slam page deriding the school on Facebook.

“The kids took it upon themselves to make sure it went away,” Lehmann says.

Then, he says, they started another one asking visitors to finish the sentence, “You know you go to SLA when …”

“The students were posting all these silly, ridiculous, weird things that celebrate our community,” says Lehmann. “It was really cool. The incident showed that when kids didn’t like the way something happened they felt empowered to reverse it.”

Illustration by James Yang


Commercialization and

Submitted by Alexis Ladd on 1 March 2011 - 4:07pm.

Commercialization and socialization -- those are the pieces that are missing in this article. Schools need to be aware that by embracing social networking in the classroom, they are also introducing yet another vehicle for corporations to access and influence children. Schools need to be a protected space, free from commercial enterprises. I agree that we need to be having open discussions with students, and our children, about how these technologies work -- both the benefits and pitfalls. A big part of that discussion is understanding how the commercialization works, how they are targeted, and influenced -- often times using under the radar methods that undermine social trust and community. There are also huge environmental consequences to media reinforced hyper consumption.

When technology is used to circumvent practicing social skills, it can inhibit a child's development. Kids need to practice face to face interactions, which include speaking in a classroom setting. Educators need to be very clear and thoughtful about what skills are being replaced by technology. I do believe that future success and happiness depends on being able to interact with other human beings in person. We all need to learn how to read social cues and communicate with one another. This can be messy at times and takes practice. It is something that needs to be protected in the classroom, not replaced by technology.

And, when did we get to the point where television is embraced as such a wonderful technology? Kids spend 32-40 hours a week in front of a screen, watching programming that is often questionable and reinforces sexism, racism, stereotypes, and other social constructs. As educators, many times we get caught up in using the latest technology without really thinking about the skills that we're trying to engage in the classroom or what is being lost. When kids are spending so much time already in front of a screen, why not have school be a place where they engage other neuro pathways?

I am an English teacher who

Submitted by Denise on 27 February 2011 - 2:28pm.

I am an English teacher who is pursuing a PhD in English Ed. I can tell you a bulk of our studies have focused on new literacies/media literacies. Part of the problem with encouraging the use of these literacies is that there is a fear that they are bad for our kids. The debate of protectionism vs. empowerment is alive and well. I argue that if we don't teach kids how to navigate their worlds (and yes, technology will always be a part of their worlds, and that includes technology that has yet to be developed!) and "read" the information presented to them in both print and nonprint sources, we are not doing our job. My students use their smartphones to download e-readers and read a book via their devices. We have blogged a "book talk" with a classroom from Iowa. They submit their essays via Google docs (assuming they have internet at home). When questions come up in class that no one can answer, I tell them to look it up either on the computers in the room or via their smartphones. We have to teach kids that texting during important discussions and not being present to what is going on around them is a problem. However, we need to be aware that the technology can make many things easier and can help bring information to the class that we, as the "experts", might not know otherwise. Using technology in appropriate ways in classrooms helps to create a community of learners that is motivating to all of our students, regardless of their learning abilities or disabilities. And I can speak to the power of the teacher becoming a learner in these situations - I am willing to give up some of the power of "being the only one in control" to allow my students to explore their ideas and questions while ultimately helping them to learn how to think critically about their world.

I just used an online

Submitted by Denise on 24 February 2011 - 7:20pm.

I just used an online activity with cell phones and texting. Students texted the answer to a discussion question and their answers were immediately posted and projected on a large screen. Each response was then discussed in pairs. One student said: finally, a teacher who is speaking our language. There is a place for social media in the classroom. Students need to see there are educational uses that facilitate meaningful discussions about what is important to our society. Search wiffity for the text to web activity. Possibilities are endless with creative teaching. I am only scratching the surface.

All of the comments make

Submitted by Mindy on 22 February 2011 - 10:00pm.

All of the comments make valid points but they do not negate the essential point of the article - that social media is here to stay and we have to work with it, not against it. Go to a library in a college or better yet, a school of education and have a look at the shelves on technology. You'll see the history of educational technology in a nutshell - "How to use radio to reach today's students," "How television can be used to educate," "Computers in the classroom." Every generation has to cope with a new form of technology and fears its influence on the young. Even novels were once seen as a corrupting influence. Social media, cell phones, are tools for communication. They can be used for good or ill, just as typewriters, pencils and printing presses can. Look at the revolutionary movements now taking place in the Middle East, fueled by social media. We can't expect our children to go backwards, we have to meet them where they are, in school and at home. That will take some creative teaching and re-learning on our part. I appreciate the thoughtfulness of this article.

I agree with your premise

Submitted by Anonymous on 22 February 2011 - 1:57pm.

I agree with your premise that social media can be useful and positive in school. However, I worked at an alternative school that forbade phones (or at least the use of phones in school) because many of our students were gang members and, when they were ready to fight, they would call for reinforcement. Sometimes safety had to come first.

Most social media is

Submitted by Gary M. Morin on 22 February 2011 - 1:33pm.

Most social media is inaccessible to persons with disabilities or using assistive technology (speech recognition software, screen readers, etc.). Please don't encourage further expansion of the digital divide between those who have disabilities and those who don't (yet). Keep people with disabilities in mind from the start, not as an afterthought and have to then come up with excuses for their not being able to participate. If it's important to use social media, then it should be important enough for everyone to have access to it.

Please remember there are 2

Submitted by Andrea on 23 February 2011 - 10:36am.

Please remember there are 2 sides to every coin and an edge. Social media is fantastic for the deaf and hard of hearing within our schools and communities. It gives them an easier path to participation. Perhapse we need to work to have voice reconition software work with these sites just as much as we need to work to have more TV, Movies, and online Audio/visual content captioned for the hearing impared?

I love your comment. I'm

Submitted by Hana on 23 November 2012 - 12:41pm.

I love your comment. I'm doing a research about social media and deaf and hard of hearing students. Please please contact me if you have experienced anything regarding this topic. I need real data. My email is hanaomar4uh AT

I agree it is useless to try

Submitted by Rollin Shultz on 18 February 2011 - 11:53am.

I agree it is useless to try taking away the phones etc, but that being the case how about the schools offering some classes to parents, maybe even online to instruct their children in the proper use of the technology in accordance with their beliefs.
For example.
Impress on them, how annonymous posts or emails of any kind are deceitful and dishonest, therefore they should be deleted without reading.

Likewise, texting is inherently dishonest in its most popular useage, that being people usually text when they are supposed to be working or studying or when they do not want their parents/spouses to know what they are doing. Parents can circumvent this by making sure they have access to their childrens texts, emails and social network pages. Privacy has its limits and should be secondary to safety.