Saturday, March 3, 2012

Trying to Ban Facebook is Not the Answer...

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It is our professional opinion that you get your child off Facebook. -  From Pinecrest Preparatory Middle-High Administration Letter to Parents, February 22, 2012

When I first read and watched a news story about this Florida charter school's letter to parents encouraging them to get their kids off of Facebook because of the problems social media activities were causing during the school day, it got me thinking. I wondered what would make a school even venture this request in our social media saturated society. And I remembered this wasn't the first time I had heard of such a request from school administration. What is going on here?

Looking into the Pinecrest situation further, I read their complete letter to parents, posted on their website. Based on the strong nature of the letter, the school is obviously facing some difficult issues. It is hard to cultivate the positive environment required for teaching and learning if social issues are causing continuous disruption. You and I can sympathize. We would not want to try to teach nor have our own children/students learn in such an environment.

These problems are not unique to Pinecrest. This school just happens to be in the spotlight right now because of the approach they have chosen to take.

But is asking parents to get their children off of Facebook the answer?

Even if They All Left Facebook

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Let's assume for a moment that in a perfect world, 100% of Pinecrest parents buy in to this request from administration, and 100% of the students comply with their parents' wishes and close their Facebook accounts. Here are some possible outcomes I envision:

  • A tool has been removed, but the underlying behavior patterns have not been dealt with. Students continue their negative social interactions but simply use other mediums. (The Pinecrest letter acknowledges this possibility when it mentions negative aspects of texting, but does not call for a ban on texting plans or cellphones.)
  • Looking for other ways to connect, students may turn to any of the less popular or lesser used/known social networking sites that exist out there. Not to mention online games and chat rooms. This may make their activity even more difficult to monitor for parents and the school. At least most parents and school faculty/staff are on Facebook and have an awareness of how it works and what is going on there.
  • There are also plenty of free sites where students can set up websites and blogs. Tumblr is an example of a blogging site which is extremely popular with teens.
  • Students have been cruel to each other and bullied each other since the dawn of schools. And schools have had to deal with the fallout of these interactions. I myself was picked on in middle school by a group that put me in awkward situations at school and used the telephone to call and harass me. The tools of the time were different, but the actions were the same. If parents and schools do not work together on character education, setting expectations, using inappropriate student actions as teachable moments, and enforcing consequences for specific incidents, ultimately nothing will change. Students will find other avenues for their social behavior, both good and bad.

The Realistic Alternative: Model, Supervise, & Create Positive Opportunities for Social Media Use

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We all know the reality: Pinecrest students on the whole will not leave Facebook. A few might for a while, but most will eventually go back. With or without the knowledge of their parents and teachers. Facebook is the way the vast majority of us communicate with each other. Facebook and social media are not going away. If you are concerned about how your children or students are using social media, you must work with them to build critical skills they need to function in today's world and the world of tomorrow. 

None of the suggestions below are quick fixes, which is I believe what a frustrated school like Pinecrest is looking for. But they will serve families, schools, and students much better in the long run as they will better equip all of those stakeholders to thrive in a hyperconnected world.

What Administrators, Educators, and Schools Can Do
  • As administrators and educators, take advantage of the professional learning that you could be doing via social media. As you become more comfortable with using social media tools to learn, you will cultivate a positive online presence that can serve as a model and also gather professional connections and resources to help you when your school is struggling with difficulties. High school principal Eric Sheninger serves as a great example of someone who didn't get social media at first but who over the last three years has become convinced of its usefulness for his own learning as well as his students. I've written on my own blog about using Facebook for professional learning and recently presented a workshop on using Twitter for professional learning. Participating in social media for professional and educational reasons has helped me understand at a deep level the power and positive potential of the medium. 
  • Understand that increasingly a person's online reputation now counts as their resume. Studies over the last year have shown that four out of five college admissions officers use Facebook to recruit students and more and more companies are looking at Facebook to find potential employees. Given these growing trends, not having an online presence could hurt a student's chances of getting into the college or career of their choosing. Students cannot wait until they are out of high school to establish or learn to negotiate having an online presence. The fact that our online reputations matter more and more each day can be used to teach students about the long-term importance of what they are doing online. Instead of banning Facebook, consider using it as a teaching tool.
  • Provide positive online experiences for your students which are integrated with their learning. Consider using Edmodo, a high quality networking site that is free of charge and aimed at schools for the purpose of creating online learning communities. Blog with your students; some great resources for learning about and teaching with blogging can be found here, here, and here.
  • Get students involved in collaborative projects which use technology and social media as tools for learning. The Flat Classroom Projects are award winning, quality opportunities for just such an endeavor, and their themes include digital citizenship, social action, and cross-cultural understanding. Flat Classroom also provides teacher training and support. You can also encourage students to use online tools in service of others. Check out what these Texas high school students have accomplished for kids in Kenya.
  • There are more ideas interspersed throughout the slides from my recent presentation on Supporting Teachers and Students in the Curation of Their Digital Footprint.
  • BOTTOM LINE: Don't try to ban Facebook or any other social media, but instead find ways to positively integrate them into teaching and learning. Doing so will provide myriad opportunities to discuss personal use of social media with students and mentor them in positive practices. 

What Parents Can Do
  • Talk with your children regularly and often about your expectations for their behavior in personal interactions, whether they be in person or online. The two worlds are no longer separate. How you conduct yourself in front of others, whether talking, texting, chatting, or posting on Facebook, reveals your character; who you are as a person.
  • If your child is under 13, they should not be on Facebook. It is a violation of Facebook's Terms of Service. This means most kids in the U.S. should not have an account until somewhere in the 7th grade at the earliest. One of the strongest statements you can make to your children about appropriate social media use is following the service terms of the sites they use.
  • For younger kids, consider letting them participate in an age appropriate social network. One I've heard and read great things about is Yoursphere, which is for kids only and has the additional mission of teaching good online citizenship. Yoursphere also has great resources for parents.
  • Make sure your child is not lying about their age on Facebook, even if they are 13 or older. Facebook has more strict privacy settings for users under 18.
  • Educate yourself about Facebook and ways to positively interact with your kids about and through the social space. This Parents' Guide to Facebook from is a great place to start. If you feel lost in the digital world, do not continue in your ignorance. Find adults in your life who know more than you and ask them questions. Ask your own kids questions about what they are doing online and how they do it; you may establish some bridges in your relationship!
  • Monitor your children's computer and internet use. Insist that computer use occur in common areas of  the home, where others are likely to be present. Keep the charging station for cell phones in your bedroom and put all cell phones there at night. Friend them on Facebook and have rules that nothing posted should be hidden from family. Monitor what they post and discuss it with them privately.
  • BOTTOM LINE: Remember you know how to parent and teach. You have taught or will teach your kids to walk through neighborhoods, ride bikes, and drive cars, even though all of those activities have potential pitfalls and dangers. You don't lock your kids away from those opportunities; you taught or will teach them how to participate appropriately and safely, and how to respect others when doing so. The digital environment of online activity is a different space, but the underlying principles of conducting oneself as a responsible, decent human being are the same.

Social Media Isn't Going Away

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When the Pinecrest story first hit my Twitter feed yesterday, I sent out a Tweet asking others what advice they might give this school. I share here, with permission, the thoughts sent over two Tweets from Rick Archer, a school administrator from the Houston area.
I think you have to teach students about responsibility and consequences when using public social media. We have character ed/social skills training daily on topics just like this. We adults have to accept and adapt. (emphasis mine)
I agree wholeheartedly with Rick! It is time for educators who have been reluctant to enter the social media world professionally and/or with students to reassess. I truly believe that successful use and management of social media and our online presence has now become a life-skill that we are obligated to teach and teach well if we want our children and students to lead productive lives in today's society and in whatever the society will look like for them in ten, twenty, or thirty years.

It is certainly not in the best interest of students to stick our heads in the sand and try to pretend this social media thing can be shelved or made to go away. Instead, we ourselves need to commit to becoming more educated and staying up-to-date on trends in this arena so we can guide our students in a knowledgeable and positive manner. Doing so over time will improve our school environments and allow us to focus on quality teaching and learning in all areas.