Alarming headlines about social media can leave the impression there's an evil monster eagerly waiting to steal away our innocent children and devour them one click at a time.
While some of the fears about social media and our students are certainly valid, the response of some school officials and parents to ban, forbid and restrict can be short-sighted. By taking away social media, schools and parents believe they are keeping their children safe from cyber-bullies, sexual predators and other online threats.
This approach, however, not only leaves our children ill-prepared to safely and knowledgeably deal with the dangers social media can present, it also fails to teach them how to be good digital citizens and successfully harness the power of social media as an important tool for learning.
Don't just tell, show!
Walking hand-in-hand to various places with my granddaughter recently, I talked to her about and modeled safety rules for crossing the road. We put our hand up over our eyes in a searching stance. I said out loud and mimicked with exaggerated motions, "We look both ways before we cross the road. Look to the left. Look to the right. All clear? If yes, let's go. If no, wait. Always be safe."
After she went through these steps in a real situation, I asked her if it was safe to cross the road. Conversely, if she had learned to cross the road safely by talking about it, reading about it, coloring a picture illustrating it, watching a video about it or playing a video game focused on it, I would have been uneasy sending her out into the world to navigate the roads.
As parents, grandparents and educators, part of our job is to teach and model how to safely navigate the physical world. We don't lock our children in the house until they are legal adults and then scoot them out the door, hoping the life lessons we taught through various simulations will transfer to real-life experiences.
Let students practice
Similarly, while we can "lock" students out of social media and attempt to teach them how to navigate the virtual world through songs, color sheets, books, videos, online programs or game simulations, nothing leaves a deeper impact on students than actually allowing them to see proper social media usage modeled daily by respected adults (parents, teachers, administrators) and by allowing students to use social media properly in the actual space.
Here are some ways to model positive social media use:
Connect with experts.
Use social media to connect with authors, in-the-field experts and other schools to demonstrate the power of connecting and learning together.
Let students take over.
Allow students to "take over" the classroom social media account. Let them take pictures and video of activities that get them excited about learning. Students can start doing this as early as kindergarten using a school or classroom social media account. Be sure to set clear rules for student take-over time, including getting permission from those who will be in your pictures and videos; teaching them how to compose a social media post; and running the post past the teacher before posting to social media.
Engage in real conversations.
Use student social media "mistakes" as opportunities to teach, not punish. I learned this valuable lesson from my former assistant principals, Jennifer Hogan and Holly Sutherland. Not only did these two brilliant educators model social media use as an important and valuable education tool, they also gently monitored student social media use.
When a student inevitably used social media in a less-than-desirable way, they would take the opportunity to discuss, not admonish, their decision-making process. This allowed students to "fail" within the safe confines of school and learn from their mistakes before similar as unguarded adults could have lifelong consequences.
Modeling use of social media through authentic, real-life situations is the best way to ensure our students will not only know how to use social media responsibly, but will also understand why doing so is important.
Get additional tips on teaching digital citizenship and using social media to improve learning in Robertson's new book, Connected Librarians: Tap Social Media to Enhance Professional Development and Student Learning.
Nikki D. Robertson is a veteran educator, school librarian and instructional technology facilitator. She's passionate about 1:1 digital initiatives, collaborating with other education professionals and helping