As a middle school principal, the effects of social media use are undeniable in my students’ lives.
We often hear about the ways that social media is damaging to our students. It is important, however, to recognize that social media is not only an inevitable part of students’ lives — it is often a necessary, and valued, instrument in developmental opportunities.
In fact, a study from the National Institutes of Health revealed that proper use of social media by children was associated with positive effects, including an increase in their physical activity, less family conflict and better sleep.
Balancing these clear benefits with an understanding of the consequences of misuse of social media can steer students in the right direction for them to gain long-term advantages.
Recently, I wrote a piece for SmartBrief Education about ways to counter social media negatives and why it is so helpful when educators teach awareness about the platforms to their students.
I have received tremendous outreach about more ideas and they are offered in this piece, with strategic solutions outlined for educators. Here are three common concerns surrounding student social media use and some ways to overcome them:
Problem: Danger to student wellbeing
There are tangible and intangible problems inherent to student social media use and their own wellbeing.
Consider one of the most obvious concerns: the negative impact of self image problems.
Educators and parents know all too well that children growing through their schooling years are hypersensitive to how they look. The degree and intensity of this has been amplified by social media platforms. Prior generations enjoyed a safe haven at home — a getaway from the peer pressures and always being “watched” at school. Students can no longer enjoy that shield of fading into a protective cocoon since social media is everywhere and designed to bring everyone’s lives instantly to a screen. The term FOMO, or the fear of missing out, speaks to this harsh reality.
Comparing yourself to an idealized body type causes anxiety, fear over not measuring up, and the stress associated with not meeting some perceived standard. In reality, social media accounts are highlight reels, often heavily-photoshopped, filtered images and accounts.
So how can we, as educators, help children realize they do not have to meet this unrealistic standard?
Solution: Share the difference between social media and real-life images
A study of three groups of women viewing “Instagram vs reality” images revealed that viewing the real images resulted in increased body satisfaction relative to the ideal images. The destructive effects of appearance comparison were far less harsh for the “reality” images than for the ideal images exposure. Providing students a healthy dose of reality like this is a constructive way to show them that idealistic versions of other people are fantasy. Consciously teaching that these images are unrealistic and not based on real-life can help students detach from the false narrative, and enjoy reality, while feeling good about themselves.
Problem: Detrimental consequences to students’ futures
Freedom of speech is an important component within our educational institutions. Yet adopting these liberties without safeguards can pose real problems regarding consequences many students may not yet understand without proper guidance.
The long term effects of acting without limits online occur because students struggle to understand real consequences for online exposure. Damage to one’s future can be serious. A person’s comments are frozen in time. Evidence is rampant of individuals seeking a career path and employees discovering old posts that paint the potential employee in a bad light. Harvard accepted, and then rejected, 10 freshmen when they discovered the students’ online behavior did not meet the university’s standards of conduct.
How can we show students that their actions now may quite literally cause them harm later?
Solution: Use real-life examples to show students that their behavior online matters
Students need to be taught that they cannot go on unabated or unfiltered. Regardless of whether they feel that this is their right, they are inhibiting their future options. Sharing stories like the Harvard one are powerful ways to show students, without debating their rights to express, that the choice is theirs. Often, roleplay is a powerful method for helping to illuminate this reality, in the safety of a classroom. Students can visually “see” what happens to a person making the choice to act unfiltered online, and how that can harm their future.
Problem: Negative effects on judgment and critical thinking
A University of Buffalo study found that using social media without a conscious awareness of its impact lowers brainpower, making us more vulnerable to the negative and fictional information that pervades social media. This relates to the FOMO concept highlighted earlier. When we see others’ idealized lives on social media, our cognitive capacity is degraded. We are too busy worrying about how others are outpacing us. It is one massive popularity contest that distracts us from higher order thinking.
So how do we pull students out of this pointless cycle of bad energy?
Solution: Teach offline mindfulness
It is unrealistic to tell children to stay offline. They are wrapped up in the present and what is happening all around them, and that is a natural part of their developmental process.
What is more effective is teaching students awareness surrounding the negative effects of social media and ways to help redirect them, especially through unplugged mindfulness activities.
One example includes practicing mindfulness techniques right in the classroom, through something as simple as chair yoga. Any teacher can head over to YouTube and find simple video guides for these types of activities..
Another way to accomplish this is to allow students to escape into their own safe mental place. Share sites that outline coffee talk activities, which help students center on an ideal sweet spot of “distracted focus.” These activities offer just enough background noise to pull students away from the compelling distractors of external stimuli such as social media, balanced with the focus that allows them to find that concentrated focal point.
Teaching these strategies can reduce the harmful effects that social media can have on our students. It also enables students to tap the benefits of social media use in a realistic and helpful way.
Dr. Michael Gaskell is principal at Hammarskjold Middle School in East Brunswick and author of Microstrategy Magic. Follow him on Twitter @GaskellMGaskell.
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