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Supporting students’ social media and technology use

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Katie Pinchas, Digital Licence Advisor for the Alannah & Madeline Foundation, discusses why it’s so important for teachers to properly understand students’ use of social media and technology, in order to set them on the right path to becoming good digital citizens.

When cars first arrived there were no stop signs, traffic lights, speed limits, licences or seat belts. Innovation can be rapid, and it usually takes some time to adjust so we can get the best out of the new thing in our lives.

The new thing we have in front of us is the rise of social media (or not that new given Facebook is now more than 10 years old). We have a generation emerging who have been online and connected their whole lives. Every phone is a smart phone, our homes are increasingly connected, friends are not necessarily people you’ve ever met, likes have become currency and it seems at times there’s no off button.

Turning 13 has become the arbitrary digital coming of age, when children can activate social media accounts on their own and enter the world of data mining, geotagging, private messaging and permanent digital footprints. This is set by the social platforms themselves, who know that often children far younger than 13 are exposed to and actively using their products.

Our response as teachers and parents can be (understandably) one based on fear. Too often we either jump to prohibition or turn a blind eye and hope the problem goes away. Instead, we need to lean in and provide support. If not, we let our students down by leaving them alone.

Social media and technology advances are dizzying but the skills to use them well are antiquated. It can be hard to see this though – even babies can ‘use’ iPads. What we sometimes miss (or know but are afraid to act upon) are the essential emotional intelligence skills required to navigate the online world safely.

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As teachers, we understand that our classrooms can support students through the behaviour changes needed to thrive in their future. The antidote to lack of engagement is a curriculum that reflects their lives and is creative, flexible and personalised. That allows these ‘digital natives’ to become creators and risk takers rather than passive consumers. This opportunity is why we teach. We’re good at it. We’ve got this.

Teenagers are still teenagers and there are fundamental things that will be the same – the need for risk and difficulty evaluating consequence. We need reminders of the way we’ve scaffolded learning in the past when it felt more controlled and developmental – nursery rhymes, songs and picture books before chapter books and independent reading. Pencils before pens. Students may be far more intuitive and advanced online, but we can provide the help, boundaries and support for when things go wrong.

Start by understanding more about the platforms your students use. How your students’ data is being used and why. Debate the issue around phone bans together. Find out what makes games and social media so addictive. From this knowledge, we can support our students to be actively engaged and in control.

Once you’ve got the basics, model your own smart, safe and responsible technology use. Broadcast your self-care practises that bring balance and energy back to your weekends and allow you to overcome stress. Connect the values and behaviours that you have established as a class to the online world and apply it to all forms of communication – take action and have clear consequences for students when these conduct codes are broken.

We’ve got our car equivalent of the 21st century but not yet the safety measures and skills. The opportunity is here for teachers to be the driving instructors, create the traffic lanes, stop signs, and seat belts for the digital age. It is up to us to ensure our children are equipped with the appropriate skills and knowledge to be good digital citizens.

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