Ever since smart phones and social media have become more predominant, teachers and schools have wrestled with how to handle them in the school and in the classroom. Some just lay down a blanket zero tolerance policy…that virtually none of them could successfully enforce for any length of time. Others try a policy of allowing them during non-class times, but that has mixed results. Some accept the transition, incorporating the new technology and the reality that their students are going to be communicating through social media into their lessons.
That third group has it right. Social media is here, and it’s one of the main ways we now communicate. So it makes sense to teach kids how to accept and use that responsibility. But in teaching that, we also have to teach them that being able to publish their thoughts online, regardless of whether it’s just out to a general public or to a specific audience. comes with consequences. If we publish something positive, we can cause good things to happen. If we post negative things, then we can get into trouble. A number of middle and high schools have experienced this already in the form of having to deal with cyberbullying, some schools even having to deal with the consequences of a parent engaging in cyberbullying a student.
And there’s the problem. When the adults role model that negative behavior, the children around them who may not yet have the ability to decide what’s acceptable or not are influenced by seeing that behavior. And they’re influenced by how other adults handle the adult who has engaged in the misbehavior. If we lightly fine them, that tells the children who see it that adults condone the behavior. If the adult gets jail time, that suggests to the children that maybe using social media to negatively impact another person isn’t the smartest idea.
We’ve recently had a situation, a series of situations, really, where an online blogger decided the appropriate response to a break-up was to use his blog to attempt to ruin his ex-girlfriend’s career and reputation. Even though the record was quickly set straight, the damage was done because the internet is a permanent public forum. And the blogger was asked to resign from his job, but not for what he’d done. Lesson learned here: It’s okay to use the internet to “punish” someone for no longer wanting to date you.
But the situation evolved…or devolved, as the case turned out to be. And now there are a number of people who’ve made death threats toward other people. Confirmed cases. FBI involvement. And these people still have the social media accounts they used to issue the threats. And those who were employed when this began appear to still be employed. What message are we sending to kids with this? If you behaved that way offline, you’d be in jail no questions asked. Why is the internet different?
I think this is an important question, and I think it’s an important one to explore with students. How is the internet different from the world offline? Should you be held accountable for something you say to someone else through social media? It starts with the conversation teens are becoming too familiar with – cyberbullying – but it offers a launchpad to discussing the seams between social media and the offline world.
Maybe if we can start this conversation with kids, we’ll find a way to stitch together those seams a bit more tightly. And then maybe we’ll have less of this to deal with. But it all starts with that teachable moment.