How is Social Media Changing Our Schools?

Is social media a powerful educational tool or a dangerous distraction?

Is social media a powerful educational tool or a dangerous distraction? All over the country, educators are wrestling with that question. So far, there is no consensus.

Schools are keenly aware that social networks create new opportunities for students to torment their peers. When the National Education Association surveyed teachers about bullying, almost 20 percent said they were aware of cyberbullying incidents. Many administrators worry that if social media were permitted during the school day, they would incur even more responsibility and perhaps liability for bullying incidents.

Even if students don’t harass each other, many educators regard social media as a distraction that keeps young people from focusing on schoolwork. Michael Rich, a Harvard researcher who calls himself “The Mediatrician,” argues that when young people use social media constantly, “their brains are rewarded for not staying on task but for jumping to the next thing.” Other researchers have found that multitasking actually slows the ability to master and retain new information.

Technology can also be a distraction for teachers. On the other side of the fence, some teachers believe schools are missing an opportunity if they don’t teach their students to use social media for something more than making mindless wisecracks and swapping silly videos. These wired teachers believe social media allows them to make a more personal connection with students and have also found it to be a powerful tool for social learning.

Because educators vary so widely in their approach to social media, parents must step up to shape their child’s social media experience so what they learn is constructive. Here are some suggestions.

  • Get involved. If your school or your child’s teacher makes use of social media, join their groups or friend them so you can keep up with what’s being said by and about the school.
  • Support school policy. Kids need to get a consistent message from parents and school personnel about how social media fits into the curriculum.
  • Don’t rush it. Social media requires social sophistication. Rather than encourage joining a social media site that is not age-appropriate, suggest sites that require parent approval and include monitoring capabilities.
  • Explore alternatives. Wikipedia maintains a list of social networking websites that will help you point your teen toward networks where relationships revolve around books, films, community service, environmental issues and other subjects.
  • Start with training wheels. When you think your child is ready for social media, set up an account together. At the beginning, approve each addition to her friend list and insist on being one of her friends. As your child demonstrates maturity, you can back away.
  • Teach survival skills. Coach your child about how to use privacy tools so profile information is not visible to the general public. Point out how to block and report content that is aggressive or inappropriate. Encourage your child to come to you if they—or others—are threatened or harassed.
  • Expect civility. Be sure your child understands that being online isn’t a license to be disrespectful or cruel. Suggest that your child adopt the time-tested rule: If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.
  • Discuss reputation. What’s said online stays online—forever. Even if your child removes an impulsive post or an ill-advised photo, someone else may have copied and distributed it. Be sure your child understands that school administrators, college admissions officers and employers (not to mention Grandma) routinely use online resources to gather information.
  • Set limits. Social media is available 24/7. Insist that your child disengage regularly from social media to do other important things like finish chores, have conversations, read books, get exercise or just think without interruption.

Carolyn Jabs raised three computer-savvy kids, including one with special needs. Visit to read more of her columns.