As any high school student will tell you, social media is often the primary form of communication for those under the age of 25. This may seem like a new development, but students who use social media are merely participating in the same types of social activities that teens in every generation have participated in. Before there were telephones, students gathered in homes and at social events to talk. Once the home phone became a staple, students talked on their landlines. Today, teens use texting and social media to communicate. The technology is different, but the basic human instinct to connect is the same.
Social media is also not just about socializing. High schools and colleges are increasingly using it to keep their student body engaged with their classroom activities and school events. And news outlets and organizations of every type that keep students in the know are growing their social presences. So social media is not the enemy — it's an outlet we want our students to use.
Of course, there is one difference between today and yesteryear: Today, when students make social mistakes and get involved in conflicts, it's often open for the entire world to see. This was not the case for previous generations of teens. Our reaction has been to lock down social media and monitor our students' every move for fear of what might happen. Unfortunately, however, this reaction prevents teens from learning how to apply the social ethics we have hopefully taught them both in our homes and in our schools.
It is our responsibility to teach students the dos and don'ts of social media, but at some point they must be free to apply what they have learned. It is also our responsibility to provide a support structure so they feel comfortable asking questions when they are unsure if they should or should not post something to social media.
So as it turns out, this is not such a new problem after all. At the root of the issue is whether we have taught our students how to treat each other respectfully. There will always be conflict. The question is how to best help them handle this conflict, particularly when it happens on a highly visible forum, such as Twitter or Facebook. Instead of spending our time monitoring and reacting to inappropriate posts, we need to spend it arming our students with tools for handling conflict so they will know when and how to face it if necessary, how to avoid it when appropriate and how to seek help when it is more than they can handle.