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Social Media at School: Teaching Safety on the Virtual Playground

Mary Beth Hertz

HS Art/Tech Teacher in Philadelphia, PA
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An illustration of a digital footprint

These days, social media gets a pretty bad rap. It seems like every other day there is a celebrity apology or a story about a teen who commits suicide due to cyberbullying. It's true, social media can breed some pretty awful stuff. And that awful stuff is great material for the digital citizenship unit that all of my school's incoming freshmen are expected to complete.

Acceptable Use

Our school is unique in Philadelphia in that it's one of the few public schools with a 1:1 program that allows students to take devices home. We give our students access to the world, and with that access comes a lot of responsibility. As such, it's vital that, from the beginning, we prepare students to use caution and be thoughtful when using their laptops.

Let's face it -- teenagers are on social media in school and out of school, even if their parents have told them they can't be, and even if the school has rules about being on phones during school hours. I always use the playground analogy when it comes to the internet and social media. We let our kids go to the playground knowing that they may encounter bullies there, or that they could fall and get hurt. We teach them how to climb, we help them when they fall or hurt themslves, and we instruct them about how to handle the bullies they may run into. Social media is the playground of this generation. They still need our guidance and help.

In my class, we start the year with the book, lol. . .OMG by Matt Ivester. I read chapters out loud to the kids, and we discuss the stories and content of each chapter. Students learn about how their digital footprint affects their job and college opportunities, about what cyberbullying is and how it affects people, about IP addresses and posting anonymously, and many other important topics. I supplement our readings with current articles from the news as well as a short group project about the rights and responsibilities of digital citizens. While reading the book, we also review our school and our district's acceptable use policy, reading it out loud, word for word, while discussing what each aspect of the policy means. Our freshmen do not receive their laptops until October, giving them time to review these policies and have meaningful discussions about responsible use of technology before they get their machines.

Always Learning

It is through these discussions that I learn about how students use social media, what their experiences have been, and what their beliefs are. I have also witnessed many students begin to reflect on their own social media use and the way that they interact with others online. We still have blunders that occur when students make poor choices despite everything we've discussed, but these discussions make it easier to put these poor choices into context. I can refer back to articles we've read, discussions we've had, and the ways that similar choices have affected real people.

Since our students have built such a deep understanding of their digital footprint and their digital identity as well as the responsibilities that come with using social media, our teachers feel more comfortable using social media in the classroom. For instance, our Spanish teacher had students create Vine videos to act out scenes in Spanish. In addition, students in my tech class created posters about digital citizenship and shared them on our website.

Schools and teachers don't have to be afraid of social media if they take the time to teach kids how to play on this virtual playground responsibly, ethically, and safely.

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Gwen Pescatore's picture
Gwen Pescatore
President Home & School Assoc, #ParentCamp Organizer, Co-Moderator #PTchat

Mary Beth...Great post! Every school district should be required to integrate digital citizenship discussions into classes (much like we integrate manners/bullying). I've often compared teaching digcit to teaching my children to cross the road...but I really like the playground analogy. We can no longer ignore discussing and teaching our kids about the best ways to use social media....but that means we also need to educate uninformed adults on what all can be found "on the playground", acceptable use (personal, professional and home/school interactions), and how to handle situations when they arise. I'm curious how you educate the adults (teachers and parents) who come into the school without that knowledge or experience?

Sharon Wright's picture

Thanks for including the book title, lol...OMG. Including readings from that along with current events are great to do before your students receive their laptops. I ran across this post from The Innovative Educator. I believe that student/teacher use of hashtags is a great way to bring organization to our social media. This post gives ideas on how to use them efficiently.
http://theinnovativeeducator.blogspot.com/2015/01/hashtag-how-tos-figure...

Mary Beth Hertz's picture
Mary Beth Hertz
HS Art/Tech Teacher in Philadelphia, PA

Great question, Gwen. There's no easy answer. One thing our school does is provide every family with a copy of our AUP and we have each family sign that they have read and understand it. We definitely have conversations with parents who want to forbid their child from using social media (this approach usually backfires). We also do not treat social media gaffes by our students as cut and dry with predetermined consequences. Everything is a conversation and every adult in the building abides by an "ethic of care" through which we do our best to see the whole student and to truly understand what has happened. Not that there aren't consequences, but the hope is that there is an opportunity for reflection and an opportunity to prevent future incidents. These conversations also include families.

Really, a social media incident is treated like any bullying or other school incident--a conference, a conversation, maybe an apology if necessary and a consequence. Also, because we spend so much time on the topic in the beginning of the year, usually all someone has to say is "what did Ms Hertz teach you about this?" and the student proceeds to explain all of the things we discussed in class. They know what to do, but often just don't follow the right path!

(2)
krs917's picture

Great post. Definitely going to check out that book by Matt Ivester.

As per the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), all schools and libraries that receive E-rate funding for Internet Access, Internal Connections or Basic Maintenance of Internal Connections must have an Internet Safety Policy and must incorporate Internet/online safety and Cyberbullying into their curriculum. Unfortunately, many schools do a one-and-done assembly or other type training and don't really dive into the topics/issues.

I completely agree with the practice of embracing social media and teaching students (and teachers) how to use it properly. It isn't going away anytime soon so we must embrace it and take control of it.

(1)
Amy Bekins's picture

You make a great point about teenagers being on social media regardless of what we do. No matter what a teacher or parent does to try to limit social media teenagers will find a way to get on and access it. So it does become our jobs as teachers to promote digital citizenship and teach students to be effective users of social media. Things that we take for granted or assume are common knowledge or courtesy are typically not as common as they seem.

Atchaporn French's picture

Thanks for sharing the information. You have provided plenty of ideas on how to get students to think about how social media will affect their lives, not just right now, but also in the future.

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