Social Media Networks and the Younger Student

Schools are embracing the tools of their tech-savvy students in classrooms and for outreach. Smartphones and iPods are fast becoming mainstream delivery systems for assignments and course material. But challenges also arise, from controlling the distraction factor to managing inappropriate use. Today we are taking a look at some issues of basic social network use by elementary and middle school students. This is the first in a series of posts looking at the impact of technology on classrooms, teachers, school media services, students, and parents.

Last week I received a birth announcement via email. It included a link to a Facebook page that had been set up for the darling infant by her parents. I found photos, birth date and details, links to a gift registry, and even the full birthing story. Over 40 friends were linked already. Most appeared to be related to the child, but a few were other infants, no doubt future playdate buddies.

While I was happy to hear that this newborn had arrived safely into the world, viewing the online page made me shudder. I have concerns about safety and privacy, for the family today and the child as she grows up. I had not even elected to “friend” this child but could see all this information. The simple privacy precaution of allowing only friends to see the pages had not been selected.

Kid on iPad (c) Twindesign | Dreamstime.com

(c) Twindesign | Dreamstime.com

Clearly, the integration of social networking into people’s lives has changed how we communicate. For many people, texting and posting to social media have become highly preferred methods of sharing. Indeed, it appears to be the desired manner of communication for students between the ages of 12 and 17 according to ongoing studies from Pew Research. It is understandable for younger students to want to participate as well. They are adept at finding the newest app or online trend and want to join the fun—photo-sharing, chatting, posting videos, and more. Few people understand how quickly the online software world is evolving better than kids. And often they have access even when their parents don’t know about it.

How young is too young? Nearly every mainstream social network site has followed Facebook in requiring users to be 13 or older. This, however, is self-policing. Many kids under 13 have accounts. They may have entered an invalid birth date on their own, or they may have asked a parent for permission to do so. A family may have a shared set of pages. Or, as with the birth announcement I received, the parents may have set up a page on their behalf. Parents should monitor their kids’ activity, but many are unaware that their younger children are active online.

Privacy settings vary and can be confusing.
Each site has its own rules and options. These are apt to change frequently and can be difficult to understand. Sometimes privacy is about safety—we all have heard of the scariest situations where predators find kids to target through online access. But such situations are extremely rare, and the most important reason for privacy is simply to control the exposure of your personal information. It doesn’t help that many online privacy policies can be hard to decipher. Teachers and parents need to help their students understand them.

Can younger kids understand the implications of what they post?
It is unreasonable to expect that any student can really foresee the long-term implications of some items on their pages. Even as adults, we do not always realize the permanence and long-range impact that a post may have. Photos at parties may be seen by prospective employers. Sites that we elect to “like” can dictate the advertisements we see online. As today’s students grow up, their digital footprint will grow with them. Our digital footprints reveal a lot about us—what we read or watch on TV, our hobbies and political interests, who our friends are, how we talk about others, and so much more. Parents and teachers know that kids will change, grow, accomplish things, and make mistakes. Every part of their journey that gets posted online will remain available for review indefinitely.

To help our students, we need to deliberately model the care that is needed when sharing in these very open forums. Then we are better prepared to help students understand that thoughtfulness is important when posting anything.

After all, there is no UNDO when posting.
When you share a tweet, a photo, or a comment online, it is out there. The only control you may have is to monitor your own privacy settings for each site. In Talking Back to Facebook: The Common Sense Guide to Raising Kids in the Digital Age, James Steyer calls on parents to pressure social network sites to create a retraction option. Presently both Google+ and Facebook say it is not an option, but Steyer feels that, given enough pressure to develop it, one of these technology innovators will break that barrier. Until then, once something is posted, it is out there forever. Anyone with permission to view information can hijack pictures or comments and reuse them, as sometimes is seen in cases of cyberbullying.

Children just might be leading the way. Most of us adults are online in more than one format. But students often pick up emerging technologies—including social networking platforms—before their parents do. Toddlers find their favorite cartoons on iPads while parents may need help setting up a game on their Wii. Setting appropriate levels of control and use for kids of all ages is even more challenging when the kids know how it works and the adults are just learning. For a “crash course” in social networking, adults might find the PC Magazine article “Social Networking 101: A Beginner’s Guide to Facebook, Twitter, Google+, & LinkedIn” to be a helpful starting point.

Teachers can help students and their families make good choices.
When talking with elementary or middle school kids about social networking, reinforce that they need parental permission to sign up. Talk about the privacy settings in a way that is age appropriate. The practice of adding countless friends to social networks can be hazardous, and teachers can help students understand that it is not a popularity counter, but a revolving door for private information.

Involve parents. Create information sheets for parents, targeted at the parents of kids in your school. Engaging the school’s parent-teacher group in the conversation can be a critical connection. Suggest sites like SafeKids.com for parents to find sample family rules and even contracts for online use. Parents may need help even seeing this as an issue for younger children, especially if they do not have the technology in their own home.

Looking forward, we may see the age of 13 shift. As social networks become more intrinsically a part of our lives, we need to ensure that access is age appropriate, and that students are coached by well-informed parents and teachers. It can help to remember that even if a younger student is not involved yet, they will one day join social networks. While the use of these sites is free, the impact of using them is not. Helping students understand long-term consequences is increasingly important.

At what age are your students wanting to join social networks? How do you address the issues of privacy with your students? How do you engage parents in these discussions?


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Suggested Resources
“Ten Ways Schools Are Using Social Media Effectively” by Meris Stansbury, eSchool News, October 2011
Talking Back to Facebook: The Common Sense Guide to Raising Kids in the Digital Age by James P. Steyer
“Social Networking 101: A Beginner’s Guide to Facebook, Twitter, Google+, & LinkedIn” by Eric Griffith, PC Magazine, August 2011


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About Mary Stennes Wilbourn

Blogger for Free Spirit Publishing.
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