Classroom Technology

School Shootings Now Unfold on Social Media. Here’s What Educators Need to Know.

By Benjamin Herold — February 15, 2018 7 min read
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As a heavily armed teenager opened fire on his former classmates Wednesday, killing at least 17 people, the reactions of terrified students and a shell-shocked nation unfolded in real time on Twitter and Snapchat.

“My school is being shot up and I am locked inside. I’m fucking scared right now,” Aidan Minoff posted at 3:01 p.m., while huddling against the wall of his classroom inside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

Another student snapped a video of SWAT teams evacuating the auditorium. Yet another posted a clip of terrified children screaming as gunfire sounded off.

Almost immediately, the social media responses poured in.

Strangers, including many who said they’d survived one of the nearly 300 school shootings in the U.S. since 2013, offered prayers and advice. Public officials attempted to make sense of the chaos, providing updates on the death toll and letting frightened parents know where they could pick up those children lucky enough to have survived. And President Donald Trump posted condolences to his 48 million followers, prompting cries for help and profane demands for action on gun control.

Now, it’s all being replayed on an endless loop, retweeted and repurposed for the country to consume again and again.

“This is the power of social media,” said Amanda Lenhart, an expert on teens and technology who now works as the deputy director of the Better Life lab at New America, a Washington think tank.

“It brings us all so immediately to these experiences, but it can do so in a remarkably unfiltered way, and it can have a traumatic impact, even on people who weren’t directly involved.”

Schools, Crises, and Social Media

That new reality means new responsibilities and opportunities for schools and educators, said Lenhart and other experts reached by Education Week in the hours after the shooting.

It’s still too early in the technology’s history for much solid research about how school shootings and social media interact, they said.

What is clear, though, is that these platforms are interwoven with the fabric of many young people’s lives, in ways that many adults struggle to grasp.

As a result, it’s almost certain that most adolescents, and even many younger children, will turn to social media to share their anger and search for comfort and process their fear and grief.

And that means that the strategies teachers, school staff, and parents can do to help have evolved.

A first step: When possible, limit exposure to the graphic images and videos that have emerged from in and around Stoneman Douglas High, said Brian Lazzaro, a member of the school safety and crisis response committee for the National Association of School Psychologists and a psychologist at a California high school.

That’s especially important for younger children, Lazzaro said, many of whom may not understand when seeing a short video clip that the events it depicts are not happening again.

Viewing violent events on social media “has the ability to traumatize us” and “cause further damage to people who are actually safe and not involved,” Pamela Ramsden, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Bradford in the U.K. and the author of an influential 2015 study on the topic, told Education Week via email.

“These events, when filmed, create anxiety and fear,” Ramsden wrote, leaving some people “less able to manage our ability to defend against the anxiety of mortality.”

Realistically, though, most adolescents now have their own smartphones and social media accounts. In those cases, Lazzaro said, parents and educators should expect their children will be engaging with online content about the shooting, and they should be alert to opportunities to help kids talk about what they’ve encountered.

“They really need adult guidance and support to process what they’re seeing,” Lazzaro said.

Preventing ‘Contagion’

Part of that is about curtailing what experts refer to as “contagion.”

“When we use that word, what we’re really talking about is a traumatic event being passed from one child to another, with negative reactions each time,” said Rob Coad, a high school psychologist in Illinois who serves on the same NASP committee as Lazzaro.

“It starts inside the school building, then it’s online, and then someone three counties away can see it and experience a trauma of their own,” Coad said.

(After weighing the news value of the disturbing social-media content out of Parkland today against the risk of encouraging copycats or further traumatizing readers, Education Week is being selective in the images we share here.)

School staff and mental-health professionals should be particularly alert to students whom they may know to already be in a vulnerable emotional or psychological state, according to the experts.

Scouring the Shooter’s Social Media

News reports emerged Wednesday evening about the primary suspect in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High shooting, a 19-year old former student named Nikolas Cruz.

Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel told several news outlets that Cruz’s own social media activity was “very, very concerning,” and BuzzFeed reported Friday that the FBI was warned months ago that Cruz had posted a threat to become a “professional school shooter” on YouTube.

Lenhart of New America cautioned against Cruz’s peers or educators feeling they should have spotted signs of trouble. “We all wish we had perfect insight,” she said. “But that’s holding yourself to a very high standard.”

That often means face-to-face attention, Coad said. Encourage students to reach out to trusted adults in their lives for help, and model for them how to do it.

It can also mean paying attention to students’ own social media postings and interactions. But don’t suddenly turn into Big Brother, the experts agreed.

One less intrusive strategy: rather than directly monitoring their children’s or students’ feeds, parents and teachers can empower mutually trusted third parties—friends, an older cousin—to keep an eye out for warning signs, and coach them on how to ask for help if it’s needed.

“A lot of the power of these online spaces is that it feels like a safe place to share grief with peers, in ways that can feel shielded from the eyes of concerned parents and adults,” Lenhart said. “But it can also be a place where they experience stuff that feels really hurtful and inappropriate.”

Also a Force for Good

It’s also important to not forget that social media can be a tremendous force for good, even during a crisis, the experts said.

NASP’s “Social Media and School Crises” tip sheet for schools, for example, highlights the role that social media can play in quickly sharing accurate information—a strategy on display Wednesday by Broward County Commissioner Michael Udine, formerly the mayor of Parkland, who used his Twitter account to let families know where to find their children.

Social media can also be a place for educators and school leaders to spread calm, instead of panic, said Scott Woitaszewski, a professor of school psychology at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls and another member of the NASP committee on school safety and crisis response.

“A lot of times, students will ask, ‘Is this going to happen again?’” Woitaszewski said. “You don’t want to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ but you can say, ‘Here’s what we’re doing to keep you safe.’”

And many young people (and others) turned to social media to make calls for action, including some students who responded directly to President Trump.

Experts said it’s important to remember that for all its faults, social media is a modern way of creating community. While it may have a terrifying propensity to amplify fear and facilitate obsessive and hurtful behaviors, it also has a wonderful capacity to connect people and share information and inspiration, even amid tragedy.

On that front, educators and school leaders around the country can all take a cue from Aidan Minoff, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas freshman who posted the message above shortly after finding safety amid Wednesday’s violence and heartbreak.

Michelle R. Davis and Michele Molnar contributed to this report.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.