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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Educating The Social Network Generation

By Peter DeWitt — September 25, 2011 6 min read
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Facebook, as well as Twitter, are great social networking tools for adults and teenagers. It allows for everyone to connect in a variety of ways. Although it can be a useful tool for home and schools, there are advantages and disadvantages of using Facebook and Twitter as well. As we go further through the 21st century, we are all still learning more and more about ourselves and the world around us through the lens that social networking offers us.

It does seem as though the pressure is on to have more and more friends, and many of those that accept our requests, or we accept theirs, are people we have never met or may not have seen in decades. How do we teach students that it’s the quality of friends and not the quantity that matters when the adults around them care about collecting more friends as well? Facebook has been a welcomed part of our day (morning, Noon and night) because it gives us an opportunity to reconnect with old friends and stay connected with friends and relatives that we may not be able to see very often.

Facebook and Twitter corner the market in social networking; however Facebook has become a verb in our vocabulary. People “Facebook” each other all of the time. Up until about five years ago, if you are an adult, it would have been considered taboo to be on Facebook, especially if you work in schools. Many school districts and states across the country banned teachers and administrators from being a part of Facebook and other social networking sites.

As the years have passed those policies that controlled educators from joining are being lifted (Associated Press). The shift in thinking changed and there has become a concern that teachers and administrators who are not on Facebook or another social networking site are not open to 21st Century Skills. We now see schools on Facebook asking students to “like” them or “friend” them. Hopefully, all educators who are on Facebook understand the importance of having boundaries where students are concerned so that neither group is put at risk.

There are a variety of other reasons why schools are a part of social networking instead of banning it for their staff. Schools have always been considered behind the times, even though some of the teachers within that school may be progressive. Using social networking and making it socially acceptable is a way to connect with students. It is also a symbolic method of telling students that education is catching up to their needs. In order to properly educate our students we must understand their world and social networking is a major part of their world.

How Young is Too Young for Facebook?
Just like with any other tool that educators use to connect with students, Facebook can have both positive and negative effects on students. There are pressures from peers to have more friends than everyone else. When peers are denied friendships, there are many negative outcomes that can happen. Students who are denied friendships need to deal with rejection, which in reality is a life skill because everyone gets rejected during their life.

In addition, there has been an increase use of Facebook by students as young as seven years old. Some parents believe it is acceptable for their young children to belong to Facebook. Unfortunately, students this young do not know how to use the tool appropriately on their own so they must have adult supervision.

Facebook can also pose issues for our young adult populations in middle school and high school because some students provide too much information in a split-second decision which could make them a target to bullying and abuse. Students, especially those who are self-destructive, do not always understand that when it is out there in cyberspace, it is out there forever. It also sets up the opportunity to bully others. Unlike in past decades, one of the reasons why there is an explosion in the amount of bullying is due to the fact that it is now 24/7. The internet and social networking sites have increased the opportunities for bullies to abuse their victims.

As adults, we probably did many things in our childhood and young adult lives that we are not proud of, and are thankful that social networking was not available to us. Life may have turned out very differently for us if it had been available. Learning from mistakes is a lot harder when that mistake is readily available to thousands of other kids.

Do They Know All of Their Friends?
The reality is that most people who are on Facebook do not know all of their “friends.” For full disclosure, I am on Facebook with people whom I have never met or talked to in person or on the phone. As an adult, I do not put anything on my wall that could not go on a billboard. The reality is that we need to have grandma’s rule, which is that if we would not want our grandmother to read it, we should not put it up on our wall.

In addition, the most unnerving aspect to social networking is the idea that some of those “friends” that children accept could be someone who wants to hurt them. Pedophiles and other opportunist people work hard to establish friendships with our young people in order to “groom” them over a few years until the young person feels that they are truly a friend, and then the pedophile or perpetrator offers to meet up with them, which is where problems ensue.

Everything our students do offers a life lesson. Just like the adults that surround them, life is about our successes, failures and learning from our mistakes. Students just have to remember the following:

  • Even when you set your wall to private, what you write can be copied and reposted.
  • The mistakes you make today could have repercussions for your future. The bigger the mistake, the bigger the repercussion.
  • Be aware of how much personal information you give out on your page or to others who e-mail you. It’s easy to trust people but they may not always be as honest as you are.
  • E-mail is a great tool to use to connect with others but it can also provide a tone that is not necessarily there, which means you can write something innocently and the receiver of the e-mail can take it a totally different way.
  • The internet is an awesome tool that can open up your world to things you have never seen. Use it for that reason. It used to be much more difficult to do research and you have everything at your fingertips. Respect that you have been given access to a great tool.

Parent Responsibility: What are your children really doing?
Unfortunately there are times when the internet is used as a babysitting tool in households and children can easily search on sites that are inappropriate. It is less likely to happen in schools because schools are often set up with strict security settings so students cannot veer from the road that the teachers have paved during class time.

In homes, there are not always these strict security settings, and in some cases the children are the ones who know how to turn them off. In order to make sure that children are using the internet properly, parents need to set ground rules with their children. They also need to consistently check to make sure that those ground rules are being followed.

The following are some helpful tips when helping children negotiate their way through the internet:

  • Keep the computer in a high-traffic area of your home.
  • Establish limits for which online sites children may visit and for how long.
  • Remember that Internet technology can be mobile, and make sure to monitor cell phones, gaming devices, and laptops.
  • Surf the Internet with your children and let them show you what they like to do online.
  • Know who is connecting with your children online and set rules for social networking, instant messaging, e-mailing, online gaming, and using webcams.
  • Continually dialogue with your children about online safety (Netsmartz.org)

Parents, teachers and administrators must continue to talk with our children to make sure they understand that these social networking sites can be both a positive and negative tool. It can be positive because they can connect with friends and families, and even learn more information about their favorite author or actor. However, it can be a negative tool if they do not sensor their own behavior on the internet.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.