Engaging with Social Media at School

by Laura Trevaskis

“You need to get into the mind of a 13-year-old girl” they said. It was the end of 2016 and I had just become the Year 8 Coordinator at Catholic Ladies’ College. I naively delved into articles about teenage girls in Australia, thinking that there might be an academic way to prepare myself for the problems that I would be confronted with next year. No theory, however, could possibly account for some of the situations that I have had to intervene in in 2017. To best heed my colleague’s advice I should have got myself an Instagram account and downloaded Snapchat.

In my predominantly pastoral role as Year 8 Team Leader, I have spent most of my conversations with students talking about what has happened to them on social media. The girls come to me offended, worried, remorseful, or hurt. After the girls have divulged their stories, I am often left confused about exactly what happened and have to ask them to explain. The girls are obliging, and explain to me—in an obviously exasperated tone—how this or that particular social media platform works. And just when I think I’ve got my head around it, social media evolves, and my smugly confident questions – “Sorry, was this on sarahah?” – are met with dismissive head shakes.

I have resisted all social media other than Facebook (which was the thing when I was in year 12) primarily because I feel it to be damaging to my self-esteem, happiness and productivity. But it is exactly this kind of thinking which has left social media as some kind of indefinable, insidious frontier to parents and teachers. Everything needs to be explained to me, and my initial reaction to every “social media spat” (and this is where most year 8 ‘spats’ seem to be happening) is derision and confusion. I have to disguise my reflexively dismissive attitude towards it, or risk alienating the girls and seem unable to relate to them in their moment of crisis. For this reason, students are wary of “Cyber-safety” speeches, workshops, and messages. They consider themselves too knowledgeable, too ahead of the speaker, to take these messages seriously. They know what they’re dealing with. The only reason their teachers are so frightened by social media, they think, is because adults know absolutely nothing about it. Of course I wouldn’t agree to meet a stranger! Of course I wouldn’t tell someone where I am! Of course I wouldn’t add a complete stranger as a friend on Instagram.

However, teenagers do routinely add friends of friends, who they have never met before – that is to say, complete strangers. They allow these people (anonymous entities, utterly unknown to them) to be able to see their exact location on Snapchat. They post photos of themselves in school uniform to Instagram. They anonymously publish uncharacteristically unkind things about their peers. They give their passwords out to friends to keep up “streaks”.

If you don’t know how a “streak” works, it is essentially a measure of how frequently two people are private messaging one another over Snapchat. This might sound innocent enough, but it puts pressure on young people to be messaging back within twenty-four hours. It also comes to signify the closeness of a relationship. If a participant breaks the “streak” – that is, if they don’t respond quickly enough – then this might be taken as a personal affront. It might sound trivial to us, but friendships have ended over this. In order to avoid this relationship breakdown, teens have taken to impersonating one another by logging in with their friend’s password in order to maintain their “streak” with other friends during times of crisis – such as being out of mobile reception at year 8 camp.

In all of these examples, each of which I have encountered numerous times this year, there is a common reaction when students are confronted by the consequences of their online actions. They say, “I didn’t think of it like that.” In one recent example, a girl had been asking friends on private messenger, “Who do you hate the most in the year level?”. When peers replied with the name of the person they hated the most, she posted these conversations anonymously to Snapchat for the year level, and everyone else she is Snapchat friends with, spanning many year levels, to see. That day I had six girls visit my office in tears fearful that someone in the year level hates them – but they don’t know who. When I spoke to the girl, the one who had been posting these conversations, I asked her to consider how she might feel if she had seen a similar conversation about her published online. She said it would upset her, but then said, in defence of her own actions, “I didn’t want to upset anyone.” It seemed impossible to me that she couldn’t foresee that as an obvious consequence of her decision to publish a private and hurtful conversation. But this is a common reaction – the girls forget that what they do online has real consequences.

These girls aren’t malicious. When I was in school, we did similar things. We were equally thoughtlessly cruel. We had ‘hangers on’ in our friendship groups that we wished to ditch – but we never put this into practice, fearing the look on the girl’s face when we told her she couldn’t hang out with us anymore. So we just learned to put up with it, because we didn’t want to get into a face-to-face confrontation with them – painful face-to-face confrontations being the only option at the time. But social media takes this fear of real consequences out of the equation. Now, teenage girls write in group messages to their friend (and this is a real quotation): ‘Hey, I don’t want to be mean but would you mind not hanging out with us at recess and lunchtime anymore? Hope you don’t mind! Thanks xx”. They seem to forget that what they do online has real, tangible consequences for people.

Ultimately, what is needed are lessons in social media literacy. This is a platform teenagers are learning to negotiate on their own: and they are making mistakes. They have very little guidance available to them because as parents often say to me, “I don’t know what she does on the iPad.”

I don’t assume to have a solution, but there are some steps we can take towards teaching young people how to interact online. Explicit instruction doesn’t really seem to work, with teenagers believing – not without reason – that they are masters of social media. Indeed, with apps like Snapchat exploiting other apps such as Sarahah to enable anonymity, the fast-pace of social media evolution is almost impossible to keep up with unless you are on it for the average 19 or more hours a week Australian teenagers are using it.

We need to make social media less of a space where teenagers feel entitled to treat each other with callous indifference, as if the internet is a place outside of normal moral boundaries. If we make use of social media in the classroom, it will eventually become less like the freewheeling international waters of teenage socialisation. Indirectly, students will come to see that the same rules and codes that apply to how they behave at school and with their friends also apply online.

For this reason, use of social media should be built into classroom tasks in a positive way, which is to say, not in order to advise students how not to behave online, but to give them positive examples of how to behave. One way to do this may be to have students build a website. As a part of this unit of work, we ought to teach students how to respond to comments on their website and what is appropriate to post. Students should be encouraged to use social media to gather data on their website’s target audience, and in this way recognise that others might do the same to them.

We also have to acknowledge the positives of social media. For many young girls, their social media profiles are an integral part of how they see themselves and of how they form their identities. It signifies group belonging, interests, values, lifestyle and strengths. While we might wish that social media never came into existence, it is here to stay. Rather, social media needs to be seriously and intelligently incorporated into what we do as educators, in recognition of the pervasive influence it has on young people.

The other side to this, of course, is to educate teachers on evolutions in social media. Our responses tend to be reactive because we have no idea how social media is evolving. In order to be proactive and to give young people good, helpful advice, we need to know what is happening and how to warn young people against the possible pitfalls. An extremely articulate, thoughtful and seemingly secure year 11 girl recently told me that she spent almost two hours getting feedback on possible Facebook profile photos and then, in response to that feedback from peers, editing the photo before she posted it to Facebook. I was genuinely shocked by this admission. She told me about the kinds of things friends of friends (i.e., strangers) had said to her on Snapchat. Parents may be surprised to know that on a daily basis she was receiving misogynistic comments from random young men. I won’t give you the details, but they are as bad as you would imagine. And that’s the problem, we are constantly being taken by surprise by these confessions.

It is time for us to accept that social media is here to stay and that it is going to have a fundamental influence on the lives of students and teachers, and therefore that we need to talk about it more in the classroom, and keep up to date on social media developments. We need to make it less cool by talking about it more.

Laura is an English teacher who has taught in a range of settings in Melbourne and the UK. She fosters an obsession with Celine Dion in a way that is not at all ironic.