Facebook and School Students: An Imperfect Union

By Michael Nitti, Superintendent

 

Over the past decade, I have given seminars to parents and teachers about how the Internet era has impacted students and schools.

 

But interestingly enough, among the myriad of topics that in these sessions; cyberbullying, sexting, inappropriate websites, etc., one question seems to come up the most frequently from parents:  “Do you think it’s appropriate for my child to have a Facebook page?”

 

Last year, a middle school principal in New Jersey gained national attention by exhorting his school community to get their kids off Facebook, exclaiming, "There is absolutely, positively no reason for any middle school student to be a part of a social networking site!"

 

I won’t go that far for several reasons.  First, as both an educator and a parent, I’m not crazy about schools telling parents what to do with their children within their homes.  Also, I’m sure there are kids who use the tool that is Facebook to safely and happily keep in touch with their cousin in Boise, Idaho.  However, I have seen enough Facebook postings from 12-year olds at 2:30AM that I’m pretty convinced that adequate parental supervision is not always being provided.

 

Furthermore, I recognize that social networking sites are how young people communicate today.  It’s how they live, how they meet and greet, and how they socialize.  It’s not going to go away, and the only change that will take place is when a new program or site comes around that allows them to do it in a better or more enjoyable manner.

 

Students from upper elementary school through high school see this, know this, and want to be a part of it.  The main problem is that children are trying to find out who they are and how to behave in the real world; throw in the complexities of the cyber world, and quite often very real, very powerful problems in our schools ensue.

 

Growing up, going to school and navigating through adolescence is often filled with angst, insecurity and uncertainty.  At one seminar, a parent shared with the group, “Middle school was so hard for me; I couldn’t wait to get home at the end of the day.”  My response: “Now imagine what it would be like if that school day followed you home, entered your bedroom, contacted you at 10PM, and you couldn’t get away from it.”

 

Facebook turns a school community from a real one to a virtual one at the end of the school day.  As kids navigate the awkward stretch from childhood to young adulthood, many are coming to the often painful realization that they may not be in the “in-crowd,” or that they may not be the most athletic, attractive or talented student.  Facebook frequently serves as a painful reminder of this evolution.  It could be the direct anguish of “Friend Requests” being rejected, or the more subtle ache of having to view pictures and videos from another event to which you were not invited.

 

Unfortunately, Facebook tends to have very little adult supervision, and very little in the way of rules and etiquette.  This allows behavior to carry on unfettered and unfiltered, and enhanced contact often leads to increased conflict. Quite often the behavior tends to follow typical gender lines of antagonistic behavior, with adolescent male students practicing direct taunting in the form of postings, and their female counterparts employing more insidious, duplicitous techniques of teasing and ostracizing.

 

Then there are the downright nasty things that we are seeing.  Facebook group pages that are devoted to hating one targeted student.  Pages dedicated to the perceived promiscuity of a student or group of students.  Trash-talking taking place before athletic contests.  The anonymity and separation of the Internet does not help.  I once asked a student, by all accounts a good kid, how she could be so mean with her postings.  Her response: “It’s easy; I don’t have to look at her ugly face.”

 

I always ask at my seminars: What do the Tooth Fairy and privacy on Facebook have in common?  The answer, of course, is that neither one of them exists.  A posted picture is a right-click of a mouse from being somebody else’s property forever, and a left click of the mouse from “going viral.”  Mistakes and missteps done on Facebook spread rapidly and often have devastating consequences.  The changing relationships of school children add to this problem.  With one breakup comes the release on Facebook of pictures and postings done in confidence.

 

In closing, before caving in to any requests for a Facebook page, reflect on whether you have the time, and inclination, to adequately supervise your child, if you trust them to act as they would in the real world, and if you and your child are ready for all the things, both good and bad, that come from being a part of this social network.  

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