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How to Have Honest Conversations About Social Media with Students

When young people feel seen, heard, and respected, they will want to engage.

January 11, 2018
Rosalind Wiseman
Founder, Cultures of Dignity

CATEGORIES Digital Citizenship, Digital Literacy

Who hasn't sent a text or email to the wrong person? Who hasn't posted something online they later regretted or seen something in their feed that made them uncomfortable? These are difficult moments for people, no matter their age, and it's natural to be unsure what to do. But the most common advice young people get about social media is usually limited to "Think before you send" and "Once you post something, it’s always there." These clichés may be true, but they don’t help young people address the situation they're in.

If you work with young people in any capacity, you are also teaching social media norms and expectations. But what do norms mean in the context of social media? Norms are a standard or pattern of social behavior that is typical or expected of a group. Our social media use is still so new that we are all trying to figure out what our social media norms are and should be. From when we use it to how and where, we are all trying to figure it out as we go.

We start by looking in the mirror. We must reflect on how we use social media ourselves. What is true for our students is also true for us.

When it comes to issues that impact their lives, young people are equal to us in subject-matter expertise, if not more so. But this is easy to forget. When we do, we miss the larger context and therefore the opportunity to actually accomplish our goals: teaching them how to apply critical thinking to the information they receive, recognizing when it is being used to manipulate their opinions and perceptions, defining what responsible social interactions online look like, and developing awareness about how its use can impact their sense of self and understanding of the world.

So how do we do this? We start by looking in the mirror. We must reflect on how we use social media ourselves. What is true for our students is also true for us. Social media is a constant social exchange (for better and worse), a way to maintain important connections and relationships, a place to find support and share interests with like-minded people (especially when you can’t find it in real life), and a source of information that profoundly impacts the way you see yourself and the world around you.

Reflecting on Your Own Experiences

At Cultures of Dignity, we believe that successfully teaching any kind of social and emotional learning requires teachers to ask themselves the same questions they ask their students. Before initiating a discussion with your students on topics of responsible social media use, take some time to reflect on your own experiences with this exercise:

Part One:
Put a check next to the question if you can answer “yes.” Have you ...

  • Posted something, then checked repeatedly to see how many people liked it or made a comment?
  • Accidentally sent an email or text to the wrong person?
  • Been in school when someone showed you a post about you, a colleague, a parent, or a child that made you feel sad or anxious and didn’t know what to do next?
  • Had a friend or someone in your family post something that made you really upset and affected your relationship with that person?
  • Now write down a few sentences that describe your experiences and feelings to any of these questions.

Part Two:
Look back on your social media posts of the last six months and ask yourself the following questions:

  • If a stranger saw the posts you just looked at, what would they think about you?
  • What do you want people to think about you and your life?
  • How accurately do your online posts and interactions reflect what’s going on in your life?
  • Do you take steps to protect your online privacy? How important is privacy to you?
  • Is the way you handle conflict online similar to the way you handle conflict in real life? Are you proud of how you conduct yourself in either or both contexts?

Bringing Your Reflection into the Classroom

Now take a step back and remember that the majority of young people are extremely skeptical about anything we tell them regarding how to use social media. We have to show them that we are doing the work we are asking them to do. We have to show them that we acknowledge we are affected by social media too. So no matter what you teach -- math, social studies, Spanish, language arts, or computer coding -- sit down with your students and say something along the lines of:

I know I’m your math teacher, so technically my responsibility is to teach you math, but I also want the time we spend together to be good. And I know that I can be the best math teacher in the world, but if something comes through your phone that upsets you, you’re going to have a really hard time focusing on what I’m teaching you. I’ve been thinking about the technology rules we have in the school and in the class. I want to take a few minutes of our class time to dig a little deeper because I think it’s more than me nagging you to put away your phones and not being mean to someone. So we’re going to take 15 minutes to answer a few questions and then have a discussion. This doesn't have to be the only time we talk about this. If what we do seems like a good use of time, let me know.

You can do the same exercises above and then have a discussion. Share some of your own insights -- which shows them that you don’t think you’re above these issues because you’re an adult. Your goal is to approach the topic from a place of curiosity instead of blame and judgment. From there, you can fine-tune your class agreements about how social media is used in and outside of class.

Remember what you know: When young people feel seen, heard, and respected, they will want to engage. When they see that you hold each of them to high standards and you implement those standards fairly, they engage. When we admit adults’ hypocrisy, they engage. And when they are given a voice to express their own experiences and opinions, they will hold themselves to higher standards then we can ever impose.