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October 10, 2019
Vol. 15
No. 3

The Social Media Survival Kit Every Student Needs

School leaders often see a bright line between "educational technology" and "personal technology." To these educators, school-issued tablets or laptops are for learning and official curriculum while personal tech is for entertainment and communication.
From a student perspective, there is no such separation in day-to-day usage. They may take notes on their phones, email their parents from a school tablet, play educational or commercial games on a school laptop, or ask friends about homework in a group text from a personal device. I've worked with districts where parents are pushing back heavily against school tablets or laptops, but the same parents have provided their students with technology that offers many of the same capabilities for connectivity, communication, and browsing. It may be important to have distinctions between school and personal tech, but it is equally important to acknowledge that these distinctions are frequently irrelevant to our students.
When I lead professional development sessions about social-emotional learning in the digital age, I often hear from educators that social media and digital games are interfering with the culture of their classrooms and schools. They wish they could keep these immersive apps and games and their resulting conflicts contained—and away from the learning environment. My suggestion: Bring it in.
By directly addressing the challenges as well as the benefits technology might pose, teachers provide more opportunities for learning, increase trust, and improve classroom harmony.

Bring Digital SEL Skills into the Classroom

Using some classroom, advisory, or small-group time to actively discuss and troubleshoot technology-related issues pertinent to students has many advantages. Students have a chance to articulate an issue, increase their conflict resolution skills, understand that they are less alone, and help educators better understand the world they are navigating.
Have students discuss issues, such as
  • Peers who share pictures of a classmate without permission.
  • Someone who texts too frequently.
  • The annoyances of group texts.
  • Students who see an event on social media they weren't invited to.
At one school I visited, 3rd graders were struggling to maintain an inclusive environment while playing Minecraft. Although kids were playing outside of school, the hurt feelings and frustration affected classroom dynamics. Parents complained, and the school could have banned conversations about Minecraft at school—a common strategy when educators feel the learning environment is overtaken by outside influences.
Instead, this school created a listening circle for students to share how they felt about what was happening, what behaviors in the game felt problematic, and why some students preferred not to play with less-experienced players. What came to light in the discussion was an expertise gap. With some help from their teachers, the students recognized ways they could mentor less-experienced players outside of school, thus making the game more fun, challenging, and inclusive.

From Social Conflict to Social Skills

Our students are rapidly assimilating skills in gaming, search tools, social media, and texting. Things are bound to go wrong sometimes, so I find it equally important to look for methods of repair than to simply focus on prevention of problems students may encounter when using these tools. Prevention is so central to many digital citizenship or "tech safety" curricula that this shift can take some time to adjust to, but repair is crucial.
I've heard about schools dealing with situations like students using Google Docs to change other students' work without permission, making social media accounts that impersonate another student, or taking each other's pictures without consent.
In each of these cases, it is worth asking students these questions:
  • In what situations should students involve parents or teachers? When should they handle it on their own?
  • What might make situations easier to resolve?
  • How can we avoid a repeat or similar situation?
  • Would it be better to resolve this conflict in person or via email or text?
These questions work for a whole host of scenarios, from "everyday" social conflict to more intense situations where parent and educator involvement is called for. These questions can help our students see the implications of their actions and understand the transgression of boundaries. By talking through the scenarios with them, we provide students with a set of tools to handle peer conflicts without making them more intense.
At one school, 6th graders examined how to deal with seeing images on social media that excluded the viewer. They came up with excellent suggestions like watching a favorite film or spending time with other friends, siblings, or parents. By putting these suggestions out there, we also universalized the problem. It's a subtle way to let kids know that they aren't alone and to build a guidebook of student-led suggestions for the next time the problem occurs.

Invention as a Way to Solve Problems

An exercise I love doing with students at many grade levels is "Invent Your Own Solutions," often in the form of a theoretical app. This can take as little as 25 minutes as a small-group brainstorming session. One group of students I worked with invented an app to address the challenges of group texts. They offered a way to "step out" temporarily (to practice an instrument or take a shower) without coming back to 700 texts. They also designed features for opting out completely and getting a reminder about who is participating (since you only see phone numbers for those who aren't contacts), so they would know not to gossip. Exercises like these offer a great way to get students to reflect on and plan changes to their own behaviors without resorting to threats, generalizations, and shaming, not to mention boosting their creativity and inventor skills in the process.
Our students know that the connections they experience through texting, social media, and gaming can be positive and affirming, so when we generalize to the negative, they disbelieve and tune out. On the other hand, they welcome the opportunity to troubleshoot the real stresses of navigating peer relationships and time management in the digital age, and spending time in school discussing these issues benefits the learning environment.

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