Social media in schools. Where do we start?
It’s not a simple debate and, indeed, even what we define as social media is no longer very clear.
Social media is the collective term for websites and applications that focus on communication, community-based input, interaction, content-sharing and collaboration. It’s no surprise that children love it when it facilitates interaction with friends and families.
However, as with so many other areas of technology the key is not which social media children use but what they do with it, that is important.
One could argue that primary schools should leave this challenge to secondary schools because most social media platforms have a joining age threshold of 13+.
But that would be an abdication of responsibility because we know that children access these websites much earlier.
Put it this way – if we were seeking to develop water safety we wouldn’t keep children away from water until they are 16 and then throw them off the pier.
Treating Instagram or TikTok as a problem means we will miss an opportunity to teach, to discuss and to lead.
As with TV viewing, social media is something that children should first experience together with a responsible adult (parents / carer / teacher).
It is not a babsitter to keep children occupied.
The adverse effects of passive screen watching experiences on the cognitive development of children under three are well known. This particularly applies to children passively viewing alone.
The old BBC title of “Watch with Mother” had it right - parents (or teachers) should sit with them, chat about what is being watched, point out things they might have missed and be active viewers, together.
What’s Greta up to?
Developing a “sense of other” in children develops empathy and tolerance and is rewarded with positives such as less bullying and better social integration.
The ability to use social media to reflect on others (“I wonder what Greta Thunberg / Marcus Rashford is doing today?”) can be significant and helpful.
Don’t lock and block
Back in 2012, the CloudLearn (cloudlearn.net) research project provided an insight into what could be done if school’s went against the tide of ‘locking and blocking’ down of IT systems.
The aim of the project was to source, collate, reflect on and publish proven effective practice from experienced classroom teachers and practitioners - building on what worked for them, in their cultural and educational context, and to offer a portfolio of general and proven approaches.
The report included some excellent recommendations for teachers, which still hold true today, including:
- Challenge students to research and use the social and portable media to explore, ask and answer questions
- Get pupils to think about how and why they are using social media. If they are simply using it to access information, how is it different to a school textbook?
- Plan the lesson as meticulously as you would any other. The subject matter warrants your attention
- Sanction inappropriate use or comments as you would off-task or spurious comments in the classroom in any other guise. Laughing in the lesson at bullying or inappropriate comments seen on social media is not really any different to doing so in real-life
Social media platforms come and go and dip and dive in popularity, and if young people see a vacant space in their lives they will fill it.
Our job is not to pretend that social media doesn’t exist, but to try to use it for good: to teach children to be discerning and responsible, to discover their educational value, and to work with them on effective strategies to protect and keep them safe.
If young people see social media used in a positive way to enhance learning, it changes the way they perceive these spaces. And who wouldn’t want that?
Gary Spracklen is headteacher at The Prince of Wales School, Dorchester, a former Digital Educator of the Year and a member of ETAG (the Educational Technology Action Group).