Teens, Teachers and Social Media: Same Tools, Different Purpose

This school year I decided to develop my personal growth plan around technological literacy.  I did so for a number of reasons:  First, I was hearing from our students that they were using Facebook less than in the past, but their use of Twitter was on the rise.  I had no idea how to use Twitter at the time, and I was not comfortable knowing that our students were communicating in ways I did not understand.  For years I have used Facebook as a way to communicate with students, post information about school events, and stay up to date with issues impacting our students. If our students were switching to Twitter, I wanted to learn so I could stay connected.  Second, I wanted to explore how the use of blogging and social media could improve learning, professional development, communication and reflection.  I wasn’t sure what to expect….

Eight weeks later….

To be honest, it feels funny to type ‘eight weeks later’ because I can’t believe that two months ago, I did not embrace social media and blogging the way I do now.  It reminds me of the Buddhist Proverb, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”  Both Twitter and blogging have re-shaped the way I learn and reflect.  Twitter is one of the best mediums of professional development I have ever experienced.  It allows me the opportunity to share ideas, engage in professional dialogue and learn from students and educators around the world.  And the best part? It takes place anytime, anywhere, and it’s free.  Similarly, I absolutely love taking time each week to blog.  Some people have asked if it feels like one more obligation competing for my time.  The answer is a definite no. In fact, it has the opposite effect.  The commitment to blog is a commitment I have made for myself reminding me to take time to slow down and reflect, and to focus on what I am learning, rather than getting consumed by the never ending to do list.

The second lesson I have learned since the start of the school year, is that I do not use social media the same way our students do.  I adopted Twitter to understand student behaviour, but instead I ended up on a professional development journey.  Knowing that our students were not all using Twitter to read articles and share ideas around the world, I decided to host two events with students to better understand how they use social media.  First I hosted a focus group with a small group of students from grades 9-12.  Second, I invited some students I didn’t know well to come in for a working lunch…. we provided lunch and they taught our admin team and youth worker how teens at our school are using Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr and other social media sites. 

It is important to note that the observations I have made do not necessarily represent how all students use social media.  Nonetheless, the students I spoke with offered some interesting insight.

Facebook:  Facebook is used by most, to post pictures, comment on friends’ status updates and stay connected with friends.  Most of their parents also use Facebook or feel that they understand Facebook.  However,  many students shared that it is quite common for teens alter the privacy settings so their parents only see parts of their Facebook page.  Similarly, some students admit to having two Facebook profiles…. one their parents know about, and one they don’t.   Most of our students felt that Facebook enhanced their learning in many ways…. they use Facebook to form study groups, to upload homework files, and to stay connected with meeting times and practice schedules for extra-curricular commitments.  Almost all students also have Facebook on their phone so they receive alerts as new messages arrive in their Facebook inbox.  Most students noted that they are always on facebook while doing their homework, allowing them to collaborate, ask questions, or just chat.   At our school we post many of our school announcements on Facebook.  We now have over 800 of our 1300 students connected to our school Facebook page.  When we need students to sign up for something we post it on Facebook and we have responses in seconds.  The speed is almost instantaneous, and much more effective than using PA announcements that often get missed.

Twitter:  Many students told me that they use twitter to ‘vent’ or to express emotion.  They create hashtags that match their emotion and have conversations about how they feel about something or someone.  Most felt that their parents do not know how to monitor their use of Twitter.   Many explain that their general conversations with friends have switched from Facebook to Twitter.  Twitter appears to be the platform with the greatest opportunity for learning.  A teacher can use Twitter to have students tweet answers while in the classroom or from home, and students can connect with other classes around the world engaging in conversation, learning with one another.

Tumblr:  I have to admit, I still don’t really get this one.  Many students use it to upload photos, and comment on each other’s pictures.  They also use it as a blogging tool.  Tumblr seems to be more popular with our younger grades than our senior students.  What many like about Tumblr is the ability to post and receive anonymous comments.  As a past school counsellor, this is what I really don’t like about Tumblr.  The anonymous feature allows people to say things they would not say with their name attached.  Students mentioned that Tumblr is useful for school projects on teen issues such as eating disorders, depression, etc.  Searching on topics such as these leads to teen pages with blogs and photos, giving the student an understanding of how other teens are thinking. Many also shared that this is a platform where they post positive messages to support one another.

Texting: Our students shed some light on how texting impacts student to student relationships.  From my ‘old person’ perspective, it seems like texting has replaced old school flirting.  Unfortunately, it seems like younger girls sometimes feel obligated to engage in very private conversations or photo sharing because they believe a genuine connection exists. When relationships don’t develop further, or teens break up, some girls mentioned feeling regret around the information they have shared through their phones. Again, this seemed to be more of a concern to our younger students in grades 9 and 10.   This conversation gave us insight to the importance of education around healthy relationships, and the importance of conversations with both our male and female students about appropriate use of technology.  With the average teenager sending and receiving over 3000 texts per month, we need to provide education on how to embrace digital communication in a responsible way, fostering the same sense of citizenship that we expect in face to face interactions. 

I am thankful to our students for taking time to engage in conversation and allow me to understand social media through a different lens. Our students are growing up with technology and they have much to teach us when we give them the opportunity to do so. As I continue on my own personal journey with social media, I am mindful that our students may use the same tools, but in different ways.  And no matter how much I learn with social media, I am again reminded that the best way to connect with our kids will always be face to face conversations.

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2 thoughts on “Teens, Teachers and Social Media: Same Tools, Different Purpose

  1. Thank-you so much for sharing – I find you inspiring and I love your posts!!
    It’s impossible to keep up, always chasing technology. In post-secondary lecture halls & classrooms and in the workplace, the use of social media is also having a tremendous impact, Many adults are letting themselves be distracted by the use of social media, like an addiction. Instructors, professors, and supervisors struggle to find an effective balance for their students/staff’s productivity.
    At home, it’s very challenging for parents to keep up – to strike a balance between being vigilant about keeping their children safe online, while allowing them room to grow and respecting their privacy. It’s hard for many kids to not get caught up in spending too much time using social media simply because they haven’t fully developed an adult ability to show restraint and discretion. On the positive side, I’ve read some research which points to teens using digital media to promote their sense of belonging and their self-disclosure of personal problems – two important peer processes that support identity development.
    We are living in interesting times.

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