Teachers have always faced challenges - time changes the medium but not the content. The teachers of today still face the issues of bullying and abuse, fighting against a tide of inattention. In 2017, however, they are working against smartphones and the digital world rather than pieces of paper and fisticuffs.
One of the areas that teachers find hardest to tackle is social media. Nominet’s recent research into the impact in the classroom found that secondary school teachers lose an average of 17 minutes every day to social media disruption - that’s over 11 days each year. This is not only short-changing our kids but each school’s potential too.
The youngsters of today were born into a digital world and use social media to operate within it. Social media platforms are a place for them to express themselves and discover who they are. They can connect with likeminded people at a distance as they carve their own place in the world.
Unfortunately, sites such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are playing catch-up when cyberbullying and abuse inevitably appear. Social media has expanded many issues that teachers deal with in the classroom, with students found to be the victims of cyber bullying and online abuse, as well as even sharing explicit content during lessons.
Also alarming is the news from the NSPCC that social media exacerbates mental health issues such as anxiety and depression despite also offering a lifeline for adolescents; it’s a double-edged sword. Our own research found that half of all teachers believe social media contributes to their pupils achieving lower grades than their potential, while 57% think it has negatively affected their students’ mental health.
But social media is here to stay. Young people will find a way of using it however carefully a school tries to clamp down on usage. A case in point comes from one of England’s leading independent schools that admitted to monitoring their students’ comments on social media to check for criticism of the school, prompting protests from the students themselves. Perhaps the only way to progress is to harness social media for good as far as possible in the school environment.
This starts with ensuring teachers feel confident and able to educate their pupils on social media issues, including sharing coping strategies for cyber bullying and making clear the potential ramifications of creating or sharing explicit content. We found that less than a quarter of teachers believe they definitely have the right skills to cope, making a strong case for more training and support of teachers - or even creating roles for Digital Leaders in schools.
Teachers also need to feel confident to take the next step, from broadcasting on social media to using it to communicate with the children they educate or even as a classroom tool. Many schools have already joined the social media bandwagon, using Twitter to contact and communicate with parents and update students on closures or changes to the school day. Positive use of platforms in the classroom could be encouraged with simple steps such as incorporating sites such as Facebook into lesson plans - great for closed group class projects and sharing relevant research and ideas. This must be considered with regard to the official age restrictions for each of the social media platforms, which sits at 13 for Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
Parents also have a part to play: 84% of the teachers we spoke to believe they need to help their children understand the risks they take by living online. While schools can play a vital role in supporting children to use their social media accounts carefully, the best results will come from a collaborative effort. If parents, teachers and friends can work together we can help to keep our children safe and, hopefully, reduce the negative impact of social media in the classroom.