For better or worse, social media is here to stay, and educators have a responsibility to help students navigate the treacherous waters of online life.
If people fear what they don’t understand, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that many adults harbor serious concerns about social media — particularly, young people’s fixation with it. And while some of these concerns can be written off as “kids these days” patronization or general technological alarmism, there’s a strong case to be made that adults — especially parents and educators — need to take a more proactive role in regulating the social media usage of the young people under their supervision.
However, this is not a call for parents and educators to try to shut down or severely restrict children’s and teens’ access to social media — such an attempt would not only be futile, but counterproductive. “Parents and educators have the space and opportunity to have conversations with kids about social media, their behavior on it, and the pros and cons of a digital footprint,” explains author Aija Mayrock. “Instead of being divided by technology, be on their side and show them you care, and they will reward you by being honest with you.”
In short, while specific platforms may fall out of fashion in the years to come, what’s clear is that social media as a phenomenon is here to stay. As such, as Mayrock suggests, educators would be best served by embracing social media, by finding ways to engage students on their own terms.
Social Media’s Skyrocketing Popularity
Determining what, exactly, those terms are is easier said than done. As Common Sense Media Senior Director of Research Michael Robb tells The 74, “We are well past the part where we can say that social media has a singular effect on teens. Its role in kids’ lives is more complex, it is more nuanced, and it is…both positive and negative.”
Earlier this year, Robb’s organization released an in-depth study underscoring just how popular social media has become among 13- to 17-year-old Americans. Whereas in 2012, 34 percent of teens used social media more than once a day, today, more than 70 percent of teens do the same — including 38 percent who use it “multiple times an hour” and 16 percent who use it “almost constantly.”
Increased on-the-go access to social media has been the driving force behind this significant jump. Only 41 percent of teens reported having their own smartphone in 2012, but today, nearly nine in ten teens have their own mobile device. Even among younger teens (13- and 14-year-olds), smartphone ownership sits at 84 percent and tablet ownership sits at 93 percent.
Regardless of how they access their profiles, an overwhelming majority of the study’s participants admitted that social media plays a significant role in their lives. Nearly one third of teens say social media is either “extremely” (9 percent) or “very” (23 percent) important to them, and an additional 30 percent say it’s at least “somewhat” important. Roughly one fifth of teens claim to not use social media at all, but among those who are active users, only 4 percent say that social media is “not at all” important.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
As Robb intimated, a variety of factors underlie social media’s prominent position in teens’ lives. Over one quarter (27 percent) of teens agree that social media provides a forum in which they can express themselves creatively, nearly three quarters (74 percent) agree that it makes them more aware of current events, and one third agree that it facilitates meaningful conversations with close friends.
What’s more, 20 percent of teens claim that using social media makes them feel more confident, compared to just 3 percent of teens who claim that it makes them feel less confident (the majority of teens say that using social media has no effect on their confidence). Similarly, there are more teens who claim that using social media makes them feel less anxious (12 percent), depressed (16 percent), and lonely (25 percent) than there are who claim the opposite (8 percent, 3 percent, and 3 percent, respectively).
These benefits notwithstanding, many teens acknowledge that their ever-increasing social media usage has had negative effects, as well. Over half (54 percent) of the teens surveyed admit social media “often distracts [them] when [they] should be paying attention to the people [they’re] with,” a 10 percent increase since 2012. Additionally, 42 percent of teens believe the time they spend using social media has cut into the time they spend with friends in person.
More seriously, 57 percent of teens say social media often distracts them from their homework, and nearly 10 percent report having been cyberbullied in a way that was at least “somewhat serious.” On balance, teens seem to take these adverse effects of social media use seriously, as 68 percent agree with the statement, “Social media has a negative impact on many people my age.”
Equipping Students with the Skills They Need to Succeed
Ultimately, it’s adults’ responsibility to mitigate this negative impact by helping young people use social media in a measured, healthy way. Whether educators opt to leverage social media for educational purposes in the classroom is a matter of personal preference, but educating students about social media — particularly its attendant risks and responsibilities — is a must. According to Mayrock, this edification should take place early and often.
“I see the greatest opportunity for change to occur being when kids are very young — perhaps in the first and second grades — when behavioral patterns can be affected,” she argues. “It is crucial for parents and teachers to have conversations about digital citizenship with children as soon as they start school.”
In order for these conversations to be productive, educators must make a concerted effort to understand the ins and outs of social media — and why it’s so important to young people. However, outside of the most junior staff members, most educators didn’t grow up with Twitter and Instagram and Snapchat, meaning most are in need of a crash course in everything social.
And while it’s not rocket science, teaching “digital immigrants” about social media requires a robust professional development infrastructure. To build such an infrastructure, school districts need to ensure they have access to as much funding as possible, which is where a tool like Vinson’s CheckPoint EMIS Platform becomes invaluable.
CheckPoint streamlines and verifies districts’ data reporting, guaranteeing they receive the maximum amount of funding to which they’re entitled. While CheckPoint won’t help educators wrap their minds around the social currency of a blue checkmark, it will help districts secure the resources they need to craft curricula that speak to today’s students in a language they understand.