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Social Media, Technology, and Middle Schoolers

Thursday, October 6, 2016

When I talk with middle schoolers about their lives, there are so many times when I want to say “I remember when I was your age….” But statements like that quickly kill a conversation. The truth is, while the awkwardness and vulnerability might be the same as when I was their age, much of what today’s “tweens” experience is far different. The name tween itself is new, and the social landscape tweens navigate every day is far different from the one we roamed when we were their ages.

Snapchat, Instagram, Musical.ly, Kik—these are just a few of the apps that are changing the world kids live in. For us, often “digital immigrants,” these programs seem filled with dangerous pitfalls that can have lasting consequences, often social, for young people experimenting with expressing themselves. A phenomenon that has become known as “Facebook depression” is perhaps the possibility that frightens me the most. While many students will say they are posting for themselves and don’t care who likes or doesn’t like their posts, too often I learn of hurt feelings. In middle school especially, what others think carries immense weight. Maybe we can identify with this from our own experiences, but the rest is all brand new. We never thought twice about the time or effort that went into picking up the phone. Yet, the time it took to dial the phone was key (or maybe even the time spent waiting to use the phone). That time gave us a chance to doubt and possibly make a different choice. Young people today don’t have the advantage of time. Imagine if every note we wrote when we were kids could have been shared with every classmate in an instant? Today, what one child might tell another in confidence can easily be shared with everyone. There is no privacy or, often, control. There are no real secrets, and the reality is: kids can get hurt.  As I think of my own niece, who is in 6th grade, I want to shelter her from all of this, but that isn’t the answer either. The most important thing we can do is recommend to our young people some boundaries and give them a framework within which they can keep their connection to social media and technology a healthy one.

As a school, we recognize the benefits of technology, especially for communication. This year, for the first time, all upper and some lower school students have GUS email accounts. Our goal is to help students communicate directly with teachers, and also to help them understand the important boundaries around appropriate email use. Their GUS accounts allow them to send and receive emails only to and from other GUS accounts. We spent time in classes, in homeroom, and as a whole upper school talking about the responsibilities of digital citizenship. Students’ accounts are their “work” accounts. As with our dress code, there are certain things that might be totally fine outside of school but are not appropriate in school emails. If you log in to your child’s GUS account, you will see that it has a signature. This reminds students that they are using a school email and gives them an opportunity to consider outcomes. It’s our way of giving them that pause—as the rotary dial clicks back around—to think about their next move. 

It is important to note that school administrators have access to all student accounts. We can change passwords and flag accounts for language that might signal an issue. We hope this access and the controls in place will ensure a valuable learning experience. Middle schools—and GUS especially—are safe places to learn and grown, to make mistakes and become better for them. Still, students and families must be aware that harassment and bullying will not be tolerated. GUS has a Bullying Prevention Plan that I encourage all families to review: (http://www.gus.org/sites/default/files/gus_bullying_prevention_plan.pdf). As educators, we realize that the stakes are high. So what do we do?

First, we do all we can. In advisory lunches, Life Skills periods, classes, and conversations, we remind and encourage students to make smart choices with regard to technology and social media. We are concerned not only about possible social outcomes, but also about the influence on academics. School performance is absolutely affected by increased use of technology for social purposes. It can be a distraction that takes time away from academic work and sleeping. It can also create convenient opportunities for academic dishonesty, especially when students share work. Still, it’s hard to deny the academic advantages of emailing a teacher to ask a question or sending a quick text to a friend if you forgot to write down the homework. How do we help young people find a balance?

I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I do have suggestions. I  also know success will be more likely if parents  partner with us to educate our students about setting boundaries around appropriate use. Here is what I suggest:

  • Talk to your child. Last year in Life Skills the current 8th graders came up with a list of guidelines for social media use (see below). Young people understand the issues far better than we think they do and making them partners in creating appropriate boundaries increases their buy-in.
  • Always have access to your child’s accounts. He or she should have no secrets from you.
  • Set time limits on phone and computer use. Most kids are not ready for unlimited access. Imagine me giving my kindergartner a box of Oreos and leaving her unsupervised, after telling her she can only have two cookies. She’s not ready for that kind of temptation, and neither are middle schoolers engaged in a group chat. Determining times when they would refrain from group chats, texts, and so on, was one of the most important rules seventh graders created for themselves. Having that guideline allows them to tune out the noise of the day, get work done, and most important, sleep.
  • Don’t always give your child the benefit of the doubt. Come down hard on issues around misuse of social media. Author Rachel Simmons spoke at GUS a few years ago, and she said to treat mean words the same way you would treat hitting. The hurt is the same, so the consequence should be, too. Would you sit by while your child hurt another child physically? Of course not. So don’t let them off when they hurt someone emotionally either.
  • Listen to the experts. Dr. Michele Borba is coming on October 19. Whether it’s Borba or another professional, find out all you can. Just going to an event like this sends a powerful message to your child about what’s important to you. We are all trying to raise empathetic and thoughtful young people. It’s hard work, but you don’t have to go it alone.

It’s a brave new world, indeed, and I know there is no place I would rather have my child learn these lessons than at GUS. As a society, our dependence on technology and social media is only growing. It will do no good to fight it. Instead, we must work together to harness the power of technology in ways that are developmentally appropriate and safe for young people. We must offer a structure that protects our children—from themselves as well as others—by creating limits, reminding them that no electronic communication is private, maintaining access to their accounts and devices, and being active participants in their online lives. We, parents and teachers, need to keep talking to them about technology and social media until we are blue in the face. We need to hammer home our values until they roll their eyes (that’s how I know it’s working), and we need to give them opportunities to try, to make some mistakes, but most important, to learn. We can build the foundation that will show them how to make a better choice, the right choice, when faced with difficult situations, not just around technology and social media, but all things. There is real power in the home-school partnership that, I have no doubt, will secure good outcomes for our young people. Together we will trust and go forward! 

Resources:

https://www.commonsensemedia.org/educators/connecting-families/share

This is a great resource, with family contracts and guideline suggestions.

Class of 2017 Guidelines for Social Media Use 
  • No texting between 9:30 a.m. and 9:30 p.m.
  • If someone leaves a chat, do not bring them back in unless requested.
  • Do not add people that the whole group doesn’t know.
  • Remember less is more. Don’t post just to post.
  • Don’t send anything inappropriate, rude, or disrespectful (don't send anything you wouldn't want your parents to see and remember your friend's parents might see it too).
  • Don't use sarcasm (tone is hard to tell in texts).
  • Don't try to resolve conflicts over texts.
  • Don't share private information. Social media and group texts are not private.

 

Gretchen Forsyth

Director of Upper School